In the comics medium, a spread is usually an image that takes up two or more pages in both volume and sheer scope. That is what most fans and comics scholars would first think when seeing the word Spread: not realizing that it is also the title to Justin Jordan, the writer and creator of The Strange Talent of Luther Strode, and Haunt artist Kyle Strahm’s upcoming comic giving the word entirely different, yet terrifyingly familiar connotations altogether.
But this play on semantics aside for the moment, I have to warn you in advance that this will be no ordinary review of a comics work. As I’ve already mentioned at the very beginning, what we have here is a work in progress–or a graphic hint or Teaser–of what is surely to come. In my three-part article “The Stitching Together of a Mythos: Kris Straub’s Broodhollow“–which also looks at a comics work in progress–I at least had the advantage of the fact that, at the time, Kris Straub had already finished the first Chapter of his ongoing web series. What we will be looking today is nothing short of a few pages, sketches, and words from the writer.
So armed with a mono-syllabic man, an obliterated airplane, a legion of corpses, something “not dead which can eternal lie,” colourful drawings, black and white panels, sketches, and pure speculation taken with a grain of salt that I’m sure the protagonist wishes he could use to banish the monsters in this environment, let us get underway.
At the end of the New York Comic-Con 2013 Spread Teaser–the only part of the official narrative that even exists so far–and in “Spread, or How I Learned to Love a Virulent Alternate Ecosystem” Justin Jordan indicates in a manner reminiscent of Kris Straub and his own hope for Broodhollow being “Tintin meets Innsmouth” that he wants Spread to be something along the lines of Lone Wolf and Cub set within a world taken over by John Carpenter’s The Thing.
Lone Wolf and Cub was a Japanese manga series created in 1970 by the writer Kazuo Koike and artist Goseki Kojima that deals with the story of Ogami Itto: the Shogun’s former executioner who is disgraced by the lies of his enemies. He is forced to wander as an assassin while raising his three-year old son, and planning their vengeance. This theme–at least with regards to a lone adult warrior protecting a small child–is best reflected in the cover of Spread: though at least some of the aesthetic details are a … bit different.
The Thing was a film made in 1982 in which scientists in the Antarctic encounter a shape-shifting alien that assumes various forms and permutations–with an emphasis on the word mutation–based on the life forms that it kills.
In addition, The Thing is a creature that also wishes to expand itself across the Earth: hence Jordan’s idea of making an Earth that is all but consumed by something similar to this life form: one that–according to his “Spread, or How I Learned to Love a Virulent Alternate Ecosystem”–was initially inspired by a science article speculating on the multitude of other ways that “the cellular energy process” could have developed even on Earth when “life was still little more than replicating” chemicals.
The Spread itself not only seems to be able to take on a variety of different forms–as can be seen with the sketches towards the end of the Teaser document–it also looks like it can possess the dead corpses that it kills: or consumes.
I would also like to add, as something of an aside and with Kris Straub’s “Tintin meets Innsmouth” still on the brain, that the Spread itself as a disease and a life form reminds me of H.P. Lovecraft’s 1927 short story “The Colour Out of Space”: a story in which the contents of a meteorite contaminate a small part of Arkham, Massachusetts: mutating and eventually destroying all life it touches. Whether or not John Carpenter or even Joseph Campbell Jr. in his 1938 novella “Who Goes There?”–which The Thing is closely based upon–were influenced by Lovecraft directly or indirectly is unknown, but there is a very nice parallel there: especially when you consider that when a victim of Lovecraft’s “colour” dies they transform into something else entirely … albeit a form of light beyond the known spectrums of human sight.
Certainly, there is something very Lovecraftian and utterly non-human about the Spread itself: especially when you look at some of the conceptual sketches of its manifestations. Then again, most modern horror has been inspired by Lovecraft in some way.
However, Spread also seems to have some more contemporary influences and not just with regards to the creature in question. It is easy to look at the Teaser in the context of the very popular sub-genre of body horror: of the body being an imperfect organic physical vessel that can be mutilated, inflicted with intense pain, infected, and turned against not only those that an individual cares about but against their own mind as well: eroding it into a shell filled with an alien will. There is a great emphasis on this concept in The Thing: of a being becoming infiltrated and controlled by something disgusting and horrible: even more so than the functions of the human body itself.
Yet we can be even more direct about this. After all, zombies–as mindless shells reanimated by a variety of possible external influences–are an even more popular epidemic trope that exists in our time. This is not merely an example of the true horror of losing one’s individuality to social rote and disease, but it is also an illustration of what a clash between basic survival instincts and conscience–of flight and fight–might do to the psyche of those survivors that remain. And then consider Justin Jordan’s original words: that this Spread life form may not even be a foreign body–in the sense of being extraterrestrial–but may be a variant of life that evolved on Earth, or could have even remained dormant in most human bodies until this one point, and you get very bleak look at humanity’s place even on its own world: a perspective of which H.P. Lovecraft would have been grimly proud.
But let’s see if we can make out what is going on in the narrative of the comic excerpt itself. Someone other than what seems to be the main character in the descriptive captions narrates in the first-person as we come upon a warped and mutated landscape drawn and sectioned off into elegant panels by Kyle Strahm and coloured with grotesque lushness against pristine whiteness by Heavy Metal Magazine colourist Felipe Sobreiro.
It is a series of starkly panelled spaces filled with the scientists that were trying to study the Spread, the raiders that took advantage of them, the people that tried to help the scientists, and the Spread creature itself: reminiscent of a Lovecraftian shoggoth with an amorphous structure and many mouths, eyes, and malformed faces. And all of them–even the monster–are seemingly dead.
That is when we are first introduced to a lot of elements. I will admit that I was confused when “the Flyer” was mentioned. I wondered, at first, if the narrator meant the pilot of the crashed airplane, the airplane itself, or the creature wrapped all around it. I believe that the Flyer is the Spread mutant creature but imagining that thing being able to fly somehow is almost difficult to picture given its shape: though perhaps its wings–if it had any–were destroyed in the battle with the plane and the people below?
In any case, it is something of a mystery: but that is what happens sometimes when you come in at the end of someone else’s story. You do figure out that some indeterminate time ago there was an event called the Burn followed by the Quarantine. You are also made aware that some areas are more greatly affected by the Spread than others: such as the one depicted in this Teaser. It leaves a lot up to the imagination, but just enough to draw upon the reader-audience’s view of the monster and the “raiders” to figure out just enough about the social order of things: at least in this glacial place.
But one figure becomes concrete within the centre all of this disturbing supposition. On page five of the Teaser’s PDF file–from panels two to five and then page six, panels one to four–we are introduced to No: a man who finds a friend or someone he knew who tried to help others one too many times. In what will be the only display of humanity, or common decency, that we will see in this excerpt, he takes a raider’s arrow out of his friend’s neck and closes his staring eyes.
After this, we are introduced to two facts. First, the fact that the Spread can reanimate or at least take on a shape that can animate a dead corpse. And second, that No “Goddamn” Billy–after telling the creature in the parody of a humanoid form “No,” and then ordering it to “Stop”–is described as being “immune” to the Spread’s effects: perhaps due to some unique ancestral genetic codes or because, like some survivors in zombie outbreak-themed films and comics, he just isn’t affected by it: well, that or he’s No “Goddamn” Billy.
And just as it seems as though this creature, this parody of Sandman‘s Corinthian on Red Bull is about to prove that No is not “getting torn to pieces immune,” it turns out he has already dealt with this form of mutation before and eventually cuts off the thing’s head even as the realm of Sobreiro’s colour disappears, structure falls away, and sketches are all that remain before the coming of the black page informing us that we have reached the end of the comic.
This certainly leaves me with a lot of questions. For instance: who is the child that No finds and how does he find him or her? Is the narrator the child grown up as Ogami Itto’s son had done towards the end of the series: seeking vengeance or trying to survive? Who is No? Did anything happen to him to make him speak in mono-syllables? And why did he ask the Spread-mutation to stop: knowing full well that it can’t or won’t reason with him?
These are the kinds of questions that I’m sure Spread will answer in all due time after hopefully continuing to expand from its point of origin…
With open arms.