Warren Ellis’s Strange Kiss is an exercise in splatterpunk. Self-mutilation, people scraped into the sidewalk, men torn apart from the inside out…it’s not for the faint of heart. It’s intense, even for the most veteran of horror comic fans, and, I’d wager, for most veteran horror movie buffs too. I’d like to think I’ve seen my fair share of cinematic gore and celluloid bloodshed, but two or three times during Strange Kiss I found myself shuddering.
There is a division amongst many fans of the horror genre. They tend to disagree where the best movies fall on the Gore/Suspense spectrum. At one end are the classicists, the ones who treasure suspense and atmosphere. These people hold The Shining and Psycho in very high esteem. The other extremity loves the visceral shock of mutilation and twisted debauchery. They love Italian zombie movies and slasher flicks: Zombie, Friday the 13th (the original or any given sequel will do), and I Spit on Your Grave. The older you are, the more likely it is that you gravitate towards the suspense end of the spectrum. It’s usually teenagers and Gen-Xers who dig the ripped flesh and gruesome torture.
Strange Kiss is totally in the gore camp. Ellis is not here to raise the hairs on the backs of our necks. Rather, he cuts into your neck, sticks in his fingers, and wiggles them around. He is not unnerving us subtly (subtlety is not something that Ellis is known for), but seeking to shock the living hell out of us. For example: near the middle we see a woman lying on the ground, obscenely bloated, filled with evil little creatures. She says “BITING me. They’re biting me on the inside. Please help me I think they’re eating my fucking womb.”
Ellis addresses this in his introduction. He’s trying to give us something we can’t imagine, wants to leave a disturbing image in our brain that won’t go away for quite a while. He talks about fear: “Drowning, okay. I can imagine that, and therefore I can cope with the concept . . . And then comes something like Ebola . . . Welcome to the concept of a disease turning you into a pile of wet bloodpulp. Cope with that.” So we see where’s he’s coming from.
Graphic brutality aside, the book is rather mediocre. Gravel is the standard action protagonist. At least, hes thoroughly Ellis-ian. He’s British, chews gum and kicks ass (you guessed it hes out of gum!), and deals with things from outside the normal world. Gravel is a combat magician, and while hes cool, he’s not too different from most other famous action heroes. But that’s not really the point of the genre. We’re here to see something scary and all we need is a generic tough-guy to dispatch it by the end. Unfortunately, Gravel kills the villain, who, truth be told, is a bit of a disappointment, rather easily. The bad guy causes more havoc dead than alive. And of course there’s the pretty forensic examiner to help Gravel out a little bit.
This is a problem with many works of the horror persuasion. They rely too heavily on gore and shock value and not enough on suspense, pacing, or story. I probably fall closer to the suspense end of the aforementioned horror spectrum, but I still like a bit o’ gore for spice. But most horror movies are sound and fury with nothing underneath (like say, Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan). Ask the average person what the scariest movie they’ve ever seen is. Generally it’s something substantial like The Exorcist, a movie with something more to offer than eviscerated teenagers. Those are the types of movies we remember. And, unfortunately, all it takes is a comic a bit more gruesome to consign Strange Kiss to obscurity.