Hinterkind Volume One Lacks Humanity

Hinterkind Vol. 1
“The Waking World”
Writer: Ian Edginton
Art: Francesco Trifogli
Vertigo/DC Comics
April, 2013

I’ve wrestled with writing this article. My first drafts were scoured with biting remarks, including rather indulgent one-liners such as:

Hinterkind is missing its humanity, and I’m not just talking about the devastating pandemic that has wiped out most of its world’s population.

Another one:

To use an in-universe analogy, in the place of any real individuals are patchwork ghouls whose components are pulled from everywhere but within which nothing original remains.

My original conception was an extreme one – that Hinterkind attempts to create a bleak world with a few infractions of transcendent human struggle but only succeeds in creating a bleak world. Its characters, I felt, were one-dimensional proxies with bland emotions and even blander motives.

Yet on reflection, I realized that it’d been easier to distort than to pursue analysis that didn’t pull punches but also didn’t punch needlessly. What I write below will be an uncertain mixture of personal taste and interpretation that will provide better exploration. If anything doesn’t ring true, than it probably isn’t and you’d be better served reading Hinterkind for yourself.

Hinterkind is an ongoing Vertigo series created and written by British comics writer Ian Edginton, drawn by Francesco Trifogli, with its dazzling covers contributed by Greg Tocchini. Looking at his bibliography, Edginton is no stranger to amalgamations of distinct subgenres, such as Red Seas, a series which pairs pirates with the supernatural, Leviathan, a shorter work that propels a Titanic analogue into a horrifying dimension reminiscent of Silent Hill, and his current project Sixgun Logic, a mixed drink of cowboys and dinosaurs. So it’s no surprise that he would continue the trend with Hinterkind, which merges a post-apocalyptic United States with creatures one might find in a Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual.

I’m focused mostly on Volume One of Hinterkind, although I’ll mention a few concepts from Volume Two. After Volume Three hits the market, my writing here may find itself obsolete by improved storytelling. If that’s the case, than I’d be rather pleased, since I appreciate these kinds of passion projects and I think the story has potential. As of early 2015, regrettably, Hinterkind is somewhat deficient in depicting the humanity in its lead characters, a disconnect that diminishes any emotional response other than ennui. If I were to summarize this review, I’d say that Hinterkind excels at crafting an intriguing world at the expense of crafting intriguing characters.

So what is this ‘humanity’ to which I’m referring? My definition doesn’t encompass all usages of the term, but a certain degree that’s often incorporated in literature. I’ll ascribe two sequential actions. The first is the ability of human beings in suffering to perceive a better world for themselves and the people they love. The second is the active struggle made by these humans to manifest this better world, despite adversity, despite dismal and overcoming circumstances, despite personal flaws and weaknesses.

It doesn’t matter if they succeed. Humanity could be as ephemeral as a weak and selfish character leaping in front of a bullet to save someone else, creating for a fleeting moment a world where sacrifice and devotion take tangible forms. Nor does humanity have to be widespread; in fact, it’s at its most potent at its rarest, when it’s confronted by barbarism, by decadence, by frontiers and darkness. You will find the struggle for better worlds wherever there exists the superstructures of heroes and villains. You will also find humanity in post-apocalyptic fiction, as an apocalypse is not just a physical upheaval but an existential one. It’s been the dirty duty of the genre to explore this clash between hope and despair.

In Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, for example, the world has become void of vegetation and animal life, and a stench of hopelessness has draped itself over the country and the husks of cities. In turn, the survivors have become desperate bands of cannibals, picking through the wastes in search of human meat, keeping their lives while damning their souls. One man, however, discovers his humanity through the unconditional devotion he shows his child. This father can barely imagine a better world, knows innately that it’s impossible, but still he fights against all of nature to protect his son. Despite dreams of suicide and a worsening cough, despite marauding bands of man-eaters and rapists, the father refuses to accept nihilistic selfishness, choosing instead to teach his son morals but never foolishness, showing him how to scrounge for cans where flesh might be fresher, and bestowing in the boy a hope that the father has long since forgotten. In the end, the father sacrifices everything, perhaps even his soul, to keep the boy alive. These actions transcend their ghoulish reality, transforming the road they walk into a crucible.

In Hajime Isayama’s Shingeki no Kyojin, translated to English as Attack on Titan, man is also threatened by extinction, only here by hordes of hungry, naked giants. The remainder of mankind hides from these titans behind enormous walls, and from there-on the manga and anime creates a metaphysical connection between man and penned cattle and surrounded by wolves. The century-long feud with the titans is a fight against inevitable and monstrous forces, against the death of dreams, against hopelessness, against dictatorship and stagnation. Yet in one poignant scene (I’ll focus on its presentation in the anime since it’s fleshed out a bit further there), the protagonist Eren Yeager reminisces about a time in which he had the opportunity to read from a forbidden text – an encyclopedia about the outside world.

Marveling at the wonders of the earth, like seas made out of salt (a precious commodity in their civilization), Eren decides he will fight against the titans to see that which has been denied him and his people.

Eren has this flashback, however, while lying crippled in his own blood as he watches his best friends be torn apart and devoured. His resolve to pursue a better world that for now he can only imagine (a resolve stronger than injuries, fatigue, or fear) returns him to the fight.

Some series make a point of mostly lacking humanity, allowing its few glimpses to resonate deeply. Hellrazer is about a bastard living in a bastard world, but John Constantine has his ill-fated touching moments. Sin City revolves around a rugged city of sinners, only some sinners have a heart of gold beating beneath their sweat and scars. There are even darker works in which humanity is a fragile delusion, such as anything touched by H.P. Lovecraft, or in which mankind endlessly cycles between violence and civilized stagnation, such as Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men. So why should Hinterkind be criticized for the shortage?

I would argue that Ian Edginton intends to show the profound yet physical fragility of human nature through his protagonists Prosper Monday and Angus. That’s them on the cover, by the way, running from a faerie with a shotgun, a troll, and a liger (a combination of a lion and a tiger) as well as what may be the weight of the world. These two – hero and heroine – are some of mankind’s last representatives, and it’s their fate to negotiate a countryside of monsters and cruel moral dilemmas to either redeem or forfeit man’s place in the cosmos. Their ‘better world’ is hinted by the narrative itself through pseudo-Biblical passages from the Book of Monday, foreshadowing some glorious future that Prosper will herald. However, and it might just be some subtlety in the narrative that I’ve missed, the characters’ motivations and emotional responses within the Volume are undeveloped, perhaps even mundanely applied – an afterthought to Edginton’s incredible world-building.

But see, there’s a strength in Hinterkind – its world. Despite its trappings as a monomyth, Hinterkind excels as a political exposé on the factionalism that occurs at the tail-end of a fallen empire. In this way, Edginton shows himself as an incredible writer of sociology. Whereas his individual characters lack depth, the groups’ motivations make logical sense (for their breeds and species) and clash nicely.

In-story, most of mankind has been wiped out by a plague called the Blight. The survivors, reminiscent of the isolated remnants of an empire, have lost the former era’s scope – relying instead on Puritanic doctrine to keep their people congealed in tight-knit, self-sustaining villages. With the exception of the main characters, the people have a general disinterest in exploring. Their’s is the simple life of the full-time villager.

A residue of the U.S. military also remains, but its constituents have developed an unstable immunity to the plague which is causing their bodies to decay at an accelerated rate. To counteract the rot, the military abducts both human and hinter to “salvage for parts.” Their tribe is the remnant of empire that tries to restore its former glory, although at such a cost they no longer morally-deserve to do so. They are ghosts, walking corpses, metaphysical cannibals, and their part is not one of restoration but of side-show freakery in this new era.

The Hinterkind, as subtly hinted by the series’ title, are the true focus of the series. In-story, some of the human communities have been going “radio silent” and so an investigative team (an old man and two kids with guns) is sent to check out a neighboring village. The perpetrators turn out to be the Hinterkind, a slew of fairy tale creatures that, depending on the species, sometimes eat and sometimes enslave humans. In many ways, the Hinterkind parallel the historical movements undertaken by European powers in carving up the virgin territories of North America. Like the history of the US, the Hinterkind are foreigners but are not one united coalition. Instead, they are several competing factions intent on self-preservation and willing to outsmart or outduel each other for personal gain. Like history, there is a native population (in this case the human species) that is being denied respect or empathy and which has been greatly reduced by a blight to the point of making them incapable of defending themselves properly.

One of these groups is the Sidhe, essentially Shakespeare’s fairies, which are using human slaves to rebuild their empire on the West Coast. The elves, a decadent aristocracy, exploit through hierarchy and elitism much like the colonial British. Competing against them are the Vampires, wearing gray uniforms and commandeering an armada of zeppelins reminiscent of the Third Reich. The Vampires have squandered the limited resources of Europe and are now seeking fresh populations from which they hope to consume blood, akin to Spanish conquistadors searching for gold in South America, although perhaps more aptly the legendary life-bringing fountains of youth. Pettier factions also populate the landscape, including Amish ogres living harmoniously in the country, and Centaur raiders, analogous to motorcycle gangs, whom roam the plains. There are also hints of a goblin horde called the Skinlings amassing in the North. More, I’m sure, will be introduced in time, as there are countless legends and myths from which Edginton can draw from, but as of now, there’s an enormous cultural mosaic in development. In result, Hinterkind is less of a hero’s journey, and more of a political epic on how magical creatures might battle over mostly-unoccupied territory.

I say “mostly-unoccupied,” however, since little pockets of native humans still exist:

And that’s where Hinterkind encounters a problem. For the world-building excels, it seems, at the expense of its central characters. Prosper Monday and Angus, the two teenagers around whom the story revolves, are about as nuanced as Hansel and Gretel. Actually, looking back at Grimms’ Fairy Tales, the medieval duo might be better developed, and have more of this vague human struggle I’m looking for. Hansel and Gretel begin their story desiring a loving, prosperous home free of evil or selfishness, but in order to get there they must use their determination and impressive wits to overcome famine, cannibalism, parental abandonment, abduction, and being lost in the woods at an extremely young age. Prosper and Angus, on the other hand, are mostly just bored, with a tincture of naiveté (they’re unaware of the fairy tale realm around them) and altruism. One fears rejection, and leaves preemptively; the other just feels left out when their grandfather goes on a trip.

In fact, let’s look at the weak stimuli which prompts Prosper Monday and Angus’ adventure. Angus has grown a rat’s tail, and he’s afraid that if the others find out about it they’ll exile him. So he exiles himself. It’s a bizarre logic along the lines of “if they find out, they might do this thing, so I’ll do the thing first.” Angus somewhat justifies his departure by saying he’ll search for others like him, but otherwise, he isn’t really shown to have any deep desires or ambitions except a latent homosexuality, which comes off as subsidiary. Possibly some analogy will arise between Angus’ homosexuality and his mutant growth (especially since his tail signifies that he has received shape-shifting traits from an ancestral human-hinter co-mingling) but the addition of his sexuality doesn’t seem to contribute anything yet but an attempt at being ‘trendy’ by including gay characters.

Prosper Monday, a character who receives more attention than Angus, has less reasons to depart other than restlessness and a desire to hang out with her grandfather, who’s left on an expedition ahead of them. The decision to go is less of a hero’s call and more because she doesn’t have anything better to do than follow the boys. It’s not a sacrifice, nor is it much of a decision, which is frustrating because she’s meant to be a strong protagonist (she’s introduced hunting zebra for meat and breaking village rules). After all, Prosper Monday has all of the aesthetic trappings of the Huntress, a female archetype that can be traced back to the Greek goddess Artemis. The Huntress is an anti-heroine that tends to be emotionally and physically strong, pragmatic, aloof, and opposed to typical feminine trappings. Lately, Katniss Everdeen from the Hunger Games has emerged as a popular incarnation, and off the top of my head I can think of a few more, including Charlie Matheson in NBC’s Revolution, Princess Merida in Brave, and Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

It’s in no way detrimental that Edginton has employed this archetype to craft his protagonist; archetypes are the writer’s building stuff. But uniqueness of purpose and design are necessary to prevent unimaginative repetition. Helpful, to the reader, is a defining moment which establishes the character (perhaps it’d be better to say a crowing moment of definition, as every literary moment should be defining or redefining characters based on established structures). What’s Prosper’s moment? For Katniss, it’s when she volunteers to replace her sister as tribute, showing  initiative, self-sacrifice, and true strength. In Hinterkind, might it be when Prosper Monday chooses to accompany Angus? Is it when Prosper Monday fights a troll, which is inevitably defeated by Angus? Is it when she’s beguiled into being captured? Is it when she cries after her grandfather incidentally kills two men by shutting them in an exploding corridor?

At each turn she’s protected or salvaged by other characters (all men), preventing her from taking empowered actions or making decisions. If that’s her character trait – dependence – then she’s a poor variant of the Huntress, despite her appearance, and more akin to damsel-in-distress. Nor does she have a better world that she’s trying to create or protect, be it a world that’s just (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), a world in which one keeps their independence (Brave), or a world in which one’s loved ones are safe (Revolution, Hunger Games).

There is a character that does accomplish the two actions that comprise my humanity, although I’m afraid since he’s been relegated the role of mentor, he might have an expiration date. This is Asa, Prosper’s grandfather and the village doctor. Asa is an independent spirit as evidenced by his desire to check on a commune nearby. Despite the reluctance and passivity of his society, Asa doesn’t wait for mysterious circumstances to take him by surprise, but takes the initiative on uncovering matters for himself. He’s practical-minded, too, taking a pair of hunters (two characters who get very little development except that one is engaged in an adulterous affair with the village chief) to protect him. Later, Asa is a staunch opponent of violence and provides voluntary medical assistance to his enemies. Hopefully, like Gaius in BBC’s Merlin, Asa will stick around to the end, for he provides a desperately-needed alternative to the people around him – in that he actually comes off as human.

Hinterkind is an excellent mixture of savagery and despair. Unfortunately, despite Edginton’s intentions, its protagonists aren’t an effective antidote, mainly because their motivations and morals are transparently crafted to fulfill plot points.

There’s hope, however. Comparing Hinterkind to successful post-apocalyptic literature like The Road and the Hunger Games has an element of duplicity, as those are completed works and Hinterkind is still in its infancy. When Hinterkind completes and it’s entire storyline can be unfurled, then a more accurate evaluation can be made. In the meantime, despite my criticism, I’m still anticipating Volume Three – not to find out what will happen to Prosper or Angus, but to follow the grand movements of war, genocide and empire.

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When Desmond White is not blogging out of both ends, he’s stunt doubling for a bear or actually doing his job -- teaching literature at a Texas high school. A loose definition of genius, Desmond’s goals in life include making yerba mate sound appetizing (“It’s grass... that you drink!”) and writing about comics. Check out his blog, which is dedicated to bad writing advice for the aspiring bad writer.

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