Kris Straub’s Broodhollow: Luring Readers In With an Angleworm

I’ve said this before in other forums, but horror and comedy have a lot in common. You start off in an innocuous or, conversely, a bizarre place and then escalate the scenario until, right at the end, you deliver the twist: or the punchline.

Kris Straub has managed to do this, at least twice in a major way, for Broodhollow. I have been following this web comic for a while now ever since its start in 2012 and, I have to say, its level of storytelling pushes the envelope on what comics can actually portray. Unlike the other times I’ve talked about Broodhollow, I really don’t want to reveal any spoilers as suspense and reader anxiety, broken only a few times by laughter and warmth, are key to Straub’s work.

Here is what you need to know about the plot. Wadsworth Zane is a young encyclopedia salesman with a behaviour called The Pattern, something bordering on if not outright a symptom of obsessive compulsive disorder, trying to survive during the Great Depression. He gets a letter from his late great-uncle wanting him to claim his inheritance from the strange city of Broodhollow. Wadsworth encounters eccentrics, angry and suspicious citizens, strange creatures, and ghosts.

And it only gets weirder and more disturbing from there.

There is something light, airy, and innocent about the cartoon style in which Kris Straub draws the human denizens of Broodhollow and the daytime of the city itself. It is a nostalgia reminiscent of the old newspaper strips and Disney cartoons of the 1930s: a cheeriness slowly and terrifyingly subverted into warped and twisted Lovecraftian aesthetics of red and fear. Even the juxtaposition of cartoon drawings and serious dialogue, coupled with questionable memories and conflicts of dialogue and thought bubbles makes the reading experience truly jarring: in a way that truly works.

And now the second arc, Broodhollow Book Two: Angleworm, has recently come to a close. And I still don’t even know what to make of it. You can read Book One: Curious Little Thing on the Broodhollow website or purchase it and other sundry, evil things from Kris Straub’s Chainsaw Suit store. Book Two: Angleworm is only available online at the moment, but perhaps come December or so there might be a Kickstarter Campaign to make a book form possible: just as there had been for the first.

In the meantime, keep an eye out on the Broodhollow website for updates. In addition to creating comics, Kris Straub likes to create horror stories and they operate on the same principles of slowly creeping dread and “long game” punchlines as they do in his other works. For instance, he is the creator of Candle Cove.

But let me leave you with a pleasant thought for the season. While I won’t tell you what Book Two is about, I will say this. The thing you need to understand about angleworms is that they come from the soil, they feed off living and dead matter, and they are used as bait … to lure prey to a predator.

Or perhaps, in this case, an opening line bringing sleeping minds to nightmare fuel.

Oh and Kris Straub has announced that Book Three of Broodhollow will be coming out sometime in early 2015 running parallel to the Kickstarter for Book Two. It’s called A Game of Oubliette. Pleasant dreams everyone.

My So-Called Secret Identity Or Carnival: When A Drama Becomes A Game

This is going to be a review of issue #4 of the comic My So-Called Secret Identity by Will Brooker, Suze Shore, and Sarah Zaidan. There will be spoilers and, as such, please read the series on their website first: it’s still ongoing and definitely worth the read.

When I last left off introducing My So-Called Secret Identity as Dr. Will Brooker’s response to a lack of strong female characters in mainstream comics, I talked about how its protagonist Cat just is, and she should be.

My So-Called Secret Identity Issue  4 Part One

Unfortunately and as you can see, as this latest issue of the series starts off, both of these qualities are called into question. In Issue #3 of the comic it becomes very clear that Carnival, one of the main antagonists in Gloria City’s “theatre of heroes and villains” created a public ad in a newspaper addressed specifically to Cat and her method of linking different ideas and elements together.

As personal responses go, I felt a chill go down my back as I began to wonder what this meant and if there was some link between Carnival and Cat: especially given how he seemed to know how her mind works. Feliciano Carnival, as a villain, is something of a mixture between the Joker, an old-style crime boss, and a game show host with a Spanish background. He is the direct antagonist towards two of Gloria City’s celebrity superheroes: the Major that rules the City as Mayor and the black-masked Urbanite, seemingly both Captain America and Batman analogues respectively. In my last article on My So-Called Secret Identity, I compared its heroes to those in Garth Ennis’ The Boys when, in fact, they and their antagonists also have some nice resonance with the ironic and public superhero parody team the Five Swell Guys and their nemesis the Painted Doll in Alan Moore’s Promethea series. They too play the same parts, the same hero and villain cycle over and again which Moore lampoons and subverts.

My So-Called Secret Identity Issue  4 Part Two

The situation with Cat and Carnival is different. Cat is different. Whereas Carnival’s other opponents have their agreed upon script with him, she actually wants to stop him from, presumably, blowing up the World Trade Center. The fact that this story seems to take place in a different but parallel world from our own aside, while Cat seems to disrupt the scripts of the heroes — the “theatre” that they have created for two decades — she greatly intrigues Carnival: to the point where you really begin to wonder what’s actually going on.

Where Urbanite symbolizes a rough and authoritative patriarchy that threatens citizens and spouts out empty platitudes for everyone’s “own good” — to the point of his chest monitor displaying some ridiculous words and onomatopoeia, Sekhmet represents a woman attempting to survive a male-dominated profession to the point of becoming viciously competitive with other women in addition to her status as a woman of colour, and the superheroine Kyla Flyte is more of a shallow and empty doll — a token symbol of female empowerment — Carnival is the opposite side of the coin that is patriarchy: violent, misogynist, casually racist and having no regard for human life. The only difference, of course, is that he is a lot more honest about these traits compared to his heroic counterparts.

After all, as Dahlia — Cat’s landlady and fast friend — pointed out in Issue #3, women in “the theatre” tend to become permanently injured, or die. DC’s Oracle, formerly Batgirl, is an antecedent that comes to mind along with all those who become women in refrigerators. I also admit that I almost forgot who Dahlia even was and considered her a superheroine herself when heard her name: confusing it with the historical figure of Black Dahlia. After the events that unfold in this issue of My So-Called Secret Identity, I wonder if this was intentional: and I truly hope I’m wrong.

The fact of the matter is, when it comes down to it, after Cat manages to disable Carnival it is Urbanite who takes him away — who threatened to “silence” Cat “permanently” a few times if she got in his way again and who wants to do “things by the book” and not let his organized “war descend into anarchy” — who ultimately loses Carnival on his way to the asylum of Bedlam (where he usually “escapes” from anyway).  At best, this is what happens when a lunatic is allowed to exist in, or is even created by, a world of superhero and villain culture in the place of guns with blind-spots towards their overall behaviour. At worst, it is complicity: especially when you begin to wonder just where Carnival gets his resources from and how he recruits his cell-agents. Either way, it is useful to remember that Urbanite and Carnival are ultimately two sides of the same coin.

It should also be noted, again, that Will Brooker is a Batman scholar and it does make me wonder just how much his studies and perspective on Batman have informed his creation and psychology of characters like Urbanite.

My So-Called Secret Identity Issue 4 Part Three

Cat goes back to her home only to find it in burned ruins along with Carnival, who was supposed to be in custody by the authorities, waiting for her with a knife. Dahlia even warns Cat earlier in this issue that not only does she endanger her life in participating in this “theatre,” but the lives of all those around her as well: including Dahlia’s young daughter. But it becomes very clear that this “theatre” means something very different to both Cat and Carnival.

For Carnival, the addition of Cat is just another excuse to treat the “theatre” for what it is: a game with hers and other people’s lives. In this case, he doesn’t even need to keep on script to deal with her. Her continued life isn’t necessary. It isn’t even made clear if he even meant to go for the World Trade Center or just left that threat to lure Cat to him. And as for Cat, this entire situation is her life writ large. After having spent most of her life with her intelligence and insights ignored or disparaged, she enters a world she has no other resources to draw on ruled by men who maintain power through violence and silence. If she hides, she and the people she cares for might get injured or die in this power-struggle. If she participates or speaks out, she will definitely make herself — and others around her — vulnerable.

She can’t win.

She just can’t win. This isn’t a drama. This isn’t a mythic cycle. Rather, Gloria City has become a game which — by the nature of its creators and participants — Cat cannot win. Even Urbanite’s sidekick — the Misper — warns her that his boss will take her to Bedlam, effectively gaslighting her if she gets in his way again. This is, of course, assuming that he won’t actively or passively kill her by letting Carnival do the job for him. In some ways, however, gaslighting is even worse for Cat than death: as it would be a method of making her doubt the source and question her sanity with regards to her true powers: her intelligence, her memory and her sense of agency.

In the meantime, though, Cat finds herself at the mercy of a system where patriarchal officials turn their heads and cluck their tongues as a madman holds a knife to her face: making her into another play piece, another statistic. For someone who values literature and philosophy, this is the ultimate dehumanization. This is the structure of fear and debasement — this coerced choice between becoming a symbol or death — that she wanted to save Dahlia’s young daughter Daisy from growing up and living in. And, right now, it’s iffy if Daisy will even grow up and if Cat will continue to be.

So Issue #4 of My So-Called Secret Identity leaves us with a lot of questions. I won’t lie. I do think that there are areas of this story that I feel need improvement. Pacing in comics panels can be a very tricky business and sometimes I felt that Brooker’s storytelling was rushed and condensed at times. I’m talking about the entire series so far in addition this current issue.  For instance, I wanted to see more interactions with Cat and Enrique — also known as The Misper — and see the growing relationship with her, Dahlia and her housemates.

Sometimes Brooker repeats himself as well: such as when Cat repeats the thoughts she narrates about Carnival and the other heroes. And I am really curious as to what Cat thought she was going to accomplish walking into Carnival’s lair without weapons, backup, or seemingly even a plan. Was she simply hoping to scan her surroundings for more information to use against him in a form of logical argument or manipulation? I don’t really know.  Perhaps this will be addressed in later issues.

My So-Called Secret Identity Issue 4 Part Four

But I will say that I love the characterizations and the mysteries that Brooker continues to keep in reserve. For instance, that whole flashback dating thirty years ago to that children’s show. Was that host Carnival? Why are his sclera black? Is there some kind of relation between him and the current Misper? Is there any significance to the fact that this show occurred ten years before Gloria City’s “theatre” began? Is Carnival as responsible for the Meta and Trans drugs as The Major’s family?

In the reverse of what Painted Doll turned out to be for Alan Moore’s Five Swell Guys but no less a parallel, when I saw Carnival sitting on those crates like they made up his throne, it gave me this eerie feeling — in addition to Cat’s words about him being the “King of Gloria” — that I was looking at the real power in Gloria City: with all heroes as his figureheads and all civilians his playthings.

Because make no mistake. Carnival is no longer an actor: if he ever was. But while he is not an actor, he is definitely a player.

My So-Called Secret Identity Issue 4 Part Five

There are other questions too. Are there real superpowers in this world or just more smoke and mirrors? Also, who is Doll’s Eyes? Are Cat’s friends still alive? For that matter, where is Cat’s policeman father? We know that her mother is dead, but he is left ambiguous: though the fact that she wants to avoid his old colleagues might say something about this matter.

And, more importantly, how will Cat get out of this? Will there be long-term consequences for Cat as a result of this? It’s doubtful that The Misper will save her again, or at least it would be very repetitive. Will Brooker kill her off and have someone else learn her method and continue her work years later? Like Daisy (if she has survived)? Perhaps Cat’s character arc might go the Oracle route and teach other younger women to listen to City beyond merely recognizing its dangers: to actually save it.

I have to say that I doubt that Brooker will go all G.R.R. Martin or DC Comics on us given how much work and his collaborators put into Cat and how much that would border on the refrigerator woman trope: just as much I highly doubt as Carnival will kill her right now. At the moment, she is entertaining him. Her presence is, as he put it sickeningly enough, “porn”: an object to entertain and titillate him even in a non-sexual way. Is this the point where this story truly branches into a reality not unlike Mark Millar’s Kick-Ass: where a would-be hero truly and physically suffers, and dies for trying to be a superhero in an unforgiving reality?

Or will she survive and realize that she will need help and a different way to approach this game?  Is there is another way of approaching this game? Is there a way to go beyond the mentality of losing and winning to deal with reality?

Is Cat another casualty, or has her presence changed the game?

My So-Called Secret Identity Issue 4 Part 6

Will Brooker, Suze Shore and Sarah Zaidan have some questions to answer and I look forward to finding out the answers to these questions, and more, in “Second Life.” It is a fitting title: as My So-Called Secret Identity is being launched soon on June 16. So please support it and remember to Like the series on its Facebook page.

Why Don’t You Just Make One? My So-Called Secret Identity

“Well, if you don’t like how women are portrayed in comics, why don’t you make your own comic?”

You can substitute the subject of this knee-jerk reaction in the form of a question to other media such as film, television, or video games, but the gist of it is pretty much the same. Usually this question is “asked” in an attempt to silence critics, or to reduce their observations about pop culture into “nitpicking” or something completely non-constructive. Most critics ignore this loaded question because creative works — at least in the area of fiction — are not their focus or area of expertise.

However Dr. Will Brooker, popular culture expert and Batman scholar, decided that in addition to criticism he was going to actually answer this question: in the form of My So-Called Secret Identity.

Brooker and his fellow artistic collaborators the illustrator Suze Shore and PhD in superhero art Dr. Sarah Zaidan, realized that while it wasn’t nearly enough to criticize the portrayal of women in mainstream comics,  it would definitely be a step forward to create a comic that could represent them as three-dimensional human beings. They, along with an extensive and predominantly female creative team, are managing to accomplish this and more.

So what is My So-Called Secret Identity about? It is a comic about Cat: a student of philosophy and literature and daughter of a policeman. She is a young woman who sees and understands the links between different subjects and is sick and tired of pretending to lack the intelligence that she truly possesses: that many have underestimated or believe that she fakes.

My So-Called Secret Identity

Cat, also known as Catherine Abigail Daniels, loves her home of Gloria City and wants to do her part to save it from the terrorism of the supervillains that also dwell within it. Unfortunately, her other obstacles seem to be the self-styled “superheroes” of Gloria City: posturing and brittle celebrities not unlike those you might see in Garth Ennis’ The Boys that, along with their villainous counterparts, use the City and its citizens as “a theatre” (complete with “a backstage” metaphor reminiscent of Neil Gaiman) and props respectively in their “morality war.”

What I really like about Cat as a character are three elements. First, she is a woman that knows what and sometimes even who she wants and will pursue them with assertiveness instead of over-exaggerated aggression. Second, she will call people out on their actions and words but also be reasonable enough to forgive and recognize that same person as a human being. She is a person that cares about people and it shows. But lastly, I am very intrigued by how Brooker and his team handle her genius. Without spoiling too much of the comic, Cat seems to have a very Humanities or interdisciplinary approach to how she attempts to solve crime: linking ideas, geography, culture, history, and facts all together in the form of a “mind-map”: in a style of collage reminiscent of Dave McKean, Eddie Campbell, or even Daniel Vallely.

My So-Called Secret Identity Mind Map

It’s very psychogeographical. God, I love that word.

In a sense, Cat’s method of learning is actually through creating art: synthesizing different elements and their connections together as opposed to analyzing and taking details apart. It is, in my opinion, simply beautiful. Unfortunately, you can also see why other people — especially her teachers and bosses throughout her life — underestimate her or simply do not recognize her genius for what it is. It is frustrating to watch and understand that this stigma against her is not merely because of her unorthodox thinking: but there are unspoken gender expectations she keeps breaking because she is smart and female.

My So-Called Secret Identity Cat's Life

But Cat doesn’t let the expectations of others stop her. At this stage in her life she is determined to live her life and keep Gloria City safe: even if it means becoming an actor in the theatre of villains and heroes and especially, I suspect, when she ignores, subverts, and outright discards their rules by her very nature. I myself suspect that Cat’s story isn’t about the chic of “a secret identity” or playing the hero, but rather doing the right thing and being accepted for who she is and what she can do. Cat is not a secret. She just is, and she should be.

According to its Facebook Page, not only will My So-Called Secret Identity have a June 16th Kickstarter Campaign, the fourth issue of My So-Called Secret Identity Volume One will be coming out Sunday June 8, 2014. You can also buy hard-copies of the issues so far or read them online. So please, Like this comic on Facebook and read it. I look forward to seeing where Cat, and Gloria City’s story, goes.