While the selections this month all may have been amongst my most anticipated, this was not the strongest month in 2023 thus far. Each book had some reason I had been tracking it: the second in one trilogy, the long belated conclusion to a comic miniseries (and thus setting the release date for the trade), the next anthology from a well publicized publisher, and so my expectations were justifiably high.
What is interesting, however, is how extensive franchises seem to have become in literary fiction, and this probably lends something to the increasing connection to the world of horror comics from non-comics publishers. While single volume works seemed the standard for years outside of what is denigrated as “pop horror” or young adult, a certain ambitiousness has set in around the ability to keep an audience across multiple volumes. This is especially notable in this month's primary pick, which is the second in a three-part series that comes in at nearly 500 pages and would be nearly incomprehensible without reading the previous title. Nonetheless, all sales numbers so far show it to be a success.
This list is half prose and half comics, partially because horror comics are continuing to dominate LBCSs. In the next few weeks I will release both a list of horror titles to watch and a look at the best comics of the year (thus far).
This sequel to Jones’ popular My Heart is a Chainsaw and the second installment in the Indian Lake Trilogy, and it does what genre sequels are expected to do: it shifts the original concept into overdrive. Now that Jade (now going by Jennifer) is out of prison and acquitted for the “lake witch murders” the happened around Proofrock several years earlier, a new killer is on the loose and stalking the teens of this small Idaho town and mimicking the style of Jennifer’s favorite slashers. Jones’ approach has become sort of legendary as a stream-of-consciousness narrative that can create both a visceral experience and a discontinuous mess for the reader, depending on your mood. Don’t Fear the Reaper feels slightly more disjointed than My Heart is a Chainsaw, and the large cast of characters and the lack of a recap of the previous book lends easily to confusion. The book is also over 450 pages and feels like it: it is filled with entertaining, yet often unnecessary, digressions that elongate scenes that should be punchy and drive the story along. All that said, Jones is a master at his work and those who enjoyed the first will find this incredibly satisfying. For horror fans, there are many self-referential nuggets that reward our nerdy obsessions, which only adds to the appeal.
This may be the most disappointing book of the year. Swamp Thing: Green Hell promised to be superhero revisionism at its best: Swamp Thing is invoked by a dying civilization at the brink of ecological apocalypse. The options for Swamp Thing and the natural forces of the Green, the Red, and the rot pantheons are endless, particularly when they are portrayed in a slightly covert form, similar to how Aquaman: Andromeda approached Aquaman as the centerpiece of a Lovecraftian horror story rather than a straightforward superhero. Instead, Lemire drops a whole cast of superheroes at their most absurd into a situation only differentiated by its violence and desperation. All of the elements of environmental doom, sacredness of the land, the cosmic nature of the three pantheons were replaced with a standard-fare superhero romp, except stripped of its redeeming fun. What’s even worse is that the first issue of Green Hell was released over a year ago, so for a three issue miniseries to be stretched out well over twelve months, expectations were running high. Since Lemire was attached to the project, the assumption was that this would be a nearly mystical character study that would elevate the Swamp Thing concept far beyond what you would find in mainline (non-Black Label) DC titles. The re-appraisal of superheroes is what DC Black Label actually has to offer the rest of the comics world, just as the early days of Vertigo did. Instead of providing a model of deconstruction and elevation, Black Label is often simply reveling in grotesque violence to justify its branding. This is part of the crisis that DC has had over Black Label’s identity, and hopefully they can get back on track with the promise offered by the imprint when it was first created.
We were lucky enough to get a second title by Stephen Graham Jones this month, and this was his first comic published by IDW (which is becoming known for its horror books). This was the conclusion of the comic’s first arc, the premise of which involves an indigenous activist in the future heading backwards in time to kill Columbus and stop the deadly American project. Many prose authors have a tough time when they first jump into the comics world, often using too much dialogue and over complicated plot points that do not work as well in an incredibly literal medium like graphic fiction. That is the problem that Jones finds here, where the dialogue and characters become a confusing mess that is hard to parse out, even more so when you add in the various jumps through time. The first volume, which collects the first six issues, is yet listed, but you can read them individually if you want to piece together the first arc.
Chromophobia is an anthology built around the theme of color and featuring women authors, many of which are reasonably new. Like other Strangehouse anthologies, many of the stories lean on the short side and feel like experiments by novice authors. There are a few gems tucked away, but overall Chromophobia fails to provide anything exceptional or new or to live up to the hype that Strangehouse has had around it. Most readers will find something to enjoy in Chromophobia, but it fails to provide any stand-outs, and in such a crowded market I would be hard pressed to recommend it.