Things that brought me delight in December, 2020:
The Eyes of Bayonetta
The Eyes of Bayonetta is the art and design book for the first Bayonetta game. It collects both concept pieces and finished images. It's really interesting to see all the work that went into designing the signature look of the game's main character; I can't imagine the kind of artistic patience it requires to do that many iterations of a design. However, as methodical as the art is in The Eyes of Bayonetta, what I really love about the book is the implicit narrative that emerges from it.
Beneath the surface and the glossy pages of illustrations is a secret tale of the drama of the design process. There are hints of the eternal battle between the creative team and the higher ups who are hellbent on taming the design and rendering it safer and more beige. And that's only half the story; reading between the lines, you also get a sense of how delicately the design team had to navigate the lead creator's personal fetishes. (Desired elements like a bloomer costume and domineering schoolmistress poses emerge like obstacles to be defeated with a combination of acquiescence and diplomacy.)
I'm also fascinated by highly sexualized women characters, which Bayonetta definitely is, that are created by women artists. There are intimations that the design team kept expecting disapproval from Mari Shimazaki about the direction things were going, but she was honestly just more concerned with getting the lines right.
HeeEun Kim and JiEun Ha, Void's Enigmatic Mansion
There's a bit of a Fantasy Island-slash-Monkey's Paw situation going on in Void's Enigmatic Mansion. Unbeknownst to the residents who rent rooms in the seven-floor mansion, something within the building is able to grant one of their wishes. Of course, getting what you want is often more of a curse than a blessing. The art style is colorful, soft, and romantic, which makes things all the more unsettling when the comic unveils a particularly gruesome image as a narrative punctuation mark that reminds you that you are, in fact, reading a horror comic. That said, the ending was surprisingly bittersweet because redemption is so often found in strange places.
Christopher Philippo (ed.), The Valancourt Book of Victorian Christmas Ghost Stories, Volume Four
There wasn't much hope of Christmas spirit this year, but I did get to read the fourth volume of The Valancourt Book of Victorian Christmas Ghost Stories. This volume is entirely comprised of North American ghost stories; it was pretty cool to see some semi-local stories that originally appeared in places like a Syracuse newspaper. It was also interesting to glean historical tidbits such as "this relatively unknown author was Ambrose Bierce's favorite" and "Nathaniel Hawthorne's son Julian followed in his father's footsteps when he penned this Christmastime chiller." There are little historical nuggets dug up from nineteenth century newspapers included as well, but these aren't likely to lift your spirits--so to speak. One of them is about a young boy who was wearing a Santa costume while distributing presents at his school until he caught fire from candle. His last words, "I'll never play Santa Claus again."
Nightfall, Holy Nightfall: The Black Leather Cult Years
Nightfall is one of those bands I never see anyone talking about, even though they are richly deserving of esteem. Holy Nightfall: The Black Leather Cult Years is a boxed set that collects the Parade Into Centuries, Macabre Sunsets, Athenian Echoes, Lesbian Show, and Diva Futura albums, along with a number of EPs as bonus tracks. Perhaps the hell-invoking sounds of the Mediterranean (Nightfall hail from Greece) will never have as much cachet as those coming from the grim north, but they are absolute masters of sepulchral gloom that is punctuated by both gritty moments of fury and primitive orchestral interruptions.
Pam Smy, Thornhill
Thornhill is a book that alternates between pages of sequential illustration and epistolary text. It's actually a clever use of form: the sequential art bits tell the story of what's happening in 2017 when a girl and her father move into a new house. The girl's father seems to have buried himself in work to make himself absent from the new home (perhaps to stave off the grief over the mother's death). The girl soon starts seeing a mysterious stranger lurking within the grounds of the abandoned orphanage next door.
The epistolary elements are entries in the diary of a girl who lived in the orphanage in 1982. She suffers horrific bullying and is afflicted with selective mutism; she's basically unable to get anyone with authority to even notice that she's being tormented mercilessly. Slowly, over the course of the book, the two timelines converge. Fair warning: this is a dark one. The art is excellent throughout, favoring shadowy gloom and atmosphere without sacrificing detail. It differs from what we usually expect in "comics" in that it really isn't concerned at all with conveying any movement. Each image feels like a snapshot or a moment frozen in amber. But then, that's what a haunting is, isn't it?
Philip Pullman, Serpentine
"Serpentine" is a short story set in the world of the His Dark Materials series after the events of The Amber Spyglass. This isn't a story with much plot; nothing really happens in terms of action or narrative arc; this is a story about conversations and how they change our lives. Because of its unusual dramatic stakes, it could be speculated that "Serpentine" is an uneasy fit with the other books in the series, but His Dark Materials has always treated its readers as capable of curiosity and understanding, regardless of their age. As a book, Serpentine is a nice little stocking stuffer--it's a tight little tale that can be read in twenty minutes featuring warm, woodcut-inspired illustrations by Tom Dunbury.
Kaori Yuki, Alice in Murderland vol. 1-3
Families are difficult at the best of times, but Stella has more than the usual amount of familial woes. She and her siblings were all adopted into a powerful, wealthy, and prominent family. However, they discover that prestige comes at a price when their adoptive mother and father gather them all together for a "mad tea party."
During the party, the mother announces that one of the nine children will become the head of the family and be gifted with supernatural powers, so long as they are the sole remaining child after all the others have been murdered. And so begins a battle royale that amps sibling rivalry up to maximum carnage levels.
Stella discovers that in times of stress a different persona, a gun-toting mass murderer named "Blood Alice," emerges and takes over. Add to this a "white rabbit" in the form of a bodyguard-slash-stalker who has sworn to protect and possess her as his own, and you've got one of the wilder takes on Lewis Carroll's classic tales.
The Art of Junji Ito: Twisted Visions
Twisted Visions collects color artwork from famed horror manga artist Junji Ito. Some of the pieces are cover images from justly celebrated works such as Tomie and Uzumaki, but others are from rarer or lesser known venues. Ito's artwork is, obviously, horrifying, but what is striking here is how bringing all of these images together in one place reveals a set of playful obsessions that you might not notice otherwise. Sometimes the constraints imposed by a muse can feel cruel and demanding, but in Junji Ito's example you can't help but feel that his leads him to moments of joy that are too specific to be universal.
Rotting Christ, Thy Mighty Contract
The Queen's Gambit
The Queen's Gambit lived up to the hype. The miniseries follows the journey of Beth Harmon, a girl who suffers early tragedy and then life in an orphanage. Her time at the orphanage is formative in that it introduces her to two life-changing influences: chess and tranquilizer pills. After she is adopted, her love of chess and pills continues--she becomes reliant on both for a sense of self and sense of purpose. Things come to a head when she must disentangle one from the other as she wins match after match as a prodigy in line to play against the Russian champion. The series is beautifully filmed, emotionally resonant, and compelling even if you have no interest at all in chess as a game.
Lafcadio Hearn, Sean Michael Wilson, and Inko Ai Takita, Manga Yokai Stories: Ghostly Tales from Japan
Manga Yokai Stories is a collection of comics done in manga style that adapts the stories curated by Lafcadio Hearn in books such as Kwaidan and Shadowings in the early twentieth century. The adaptations are quick moving; they tend to get right to the point of the ghost stories they interpret without any unnecessary preamble. The artwork is clean and workmanly, with occasionally surprising moments of grisly horror.
Behemoth, Grom and Sventiveth
After taking a trip back to the genesis point of Rotting Christ, I decided to do the same with Behemoth and re-experience the band's first and second albums. Sventiveth (Storming Near the Baltic) is a solid album for those times when you have a hunger for that dark, raw, and somewhat primitive old-school style. The production is predictably grainy, and nothing truly stands out as a harbinger of what was to come, but it's a decent entry in their discography if you like the early 90s era of black metal. (Personally, I really enjoy "Wolves Guard My Coffin.") Grom is a monumental leap forward. The production is a bit buzzy, but the overall clarity of the music and aesthetic intention is much more evident, as is a willingness to explore and push the boundaries of black metal.