Sometimes it’s interesting to read a comic that isn’t part of world-building or creating a complex, multi-layered world. To be sure: such complex comics are very welcome, and Gabriel Hardman and Corinna Bechko’s Invisible Republic is one of the best examples of the genre. (It’s so complex, in fact, that we’ve let a couple of issues pass unreviewed here, just to let the story play out a bit before attempting an analysis.) But Hardman’s latest book, The Belfry, is about as far from that style as it’s possible to get. It’s a half-remembered nightmare, an exercise in violent Gothic horror with sketched characters (archetypes, really) and supernatural giant bat-people. But as an experiment, it’s an interesting one, and the more thought one puts into it, the more terrifying and haunting it seems.
The plot itself is very slight, although more complex that it seems at first. The nominal protagonist is “Bill”, the co-pilot of a wonderfully old-fashioned 1930s-era passenger plane that has recently crashed on a tropical island. Bill wakes up at first to discover he is the only survivor, as he attempts to rouse Flight Attendant “Janet” (there are only three named characters). But just as his investigation is beginning, a half-bat, half-human monster pounces on him and bites his neck, vampire-style. Bill cuts, in his memory, to an image of the plane in flight, but himself and everyone else on board asleep. This flashes him to yet a third possible reality, one in which everyone on board has survived, save for the Captain, who now sports a branch through his left eye. This plot line is allowed to play out completely, and involves transformation, body horror and a strange twist at the end that suggests a circular story.
This comic has the logic of a dream, which is one of its most effective elements. Scenes wander into each other, end abruptly, have an odd specificity that seems to make sense until they’re considered closely. It’s best, with stories like this, to allow the book to play their magic trick and not try to over-think.
As dreams go, The Belfry is fairly terrifying. One common phobia for humans is a complete loss of control, even over one’s own body. The ancient device of a monster that bites and causes an inevitable grotesque infection (the disease metaphor is fairly obvious) finds its way into dozens of horror sub-genres, including zombies and vampires. But here, they’re added to body anxiety (the characters are drawn naked in the latter pages, tapping another rich vein from the language of dreams) and feelings of powerlessness. Bill and Janet spend the entire story essentially asking what’s going on. No action either of them take (with perhaps one exception) alters the course of the story in any way. They’re victims, caught in some sort of trap, and never progress beyond the stage of figuring out what’s happening to them before it happens.
Whether a reader will enjoy The Belfry depends almost entirely on taste. The comic is very clever, well-drawn and effective, with excellent use of the medium, but the subject matter and overall style will only appeal to a specific type of reader. Happily, I’m one of those types, so I enjoyed it and recommend it to my fellow twisted minds.