[24 March 2011]
PopMatters Comics Editor
It’s perhaps one of the most elegant visualizations. Pages 10 through 11, the enigmatic lead character from Clive Barker’s Hellraiser enters a forbidden (sacred?) chamber in Hell to play a piano made from the flesh of a tormented soul and converse with hellish oracle. It’s as elegant arrangement as a comics page has seen, not because it is ornate, but because it is endearingly simple. Artist Leonardo Manco has really come into his own with this book.
Two panels per tier, with six tiers stacked vertically, page 11 reads like a sonnet. It is a formally constructed argument, rehearsed with a clinical precision. The virtuoso performance delivered by Manco here is not the flair with which an artist like David Mack, say, bends the comics medium to suit himself. Rather Manco’s genius lies in using the very simple layout to act as windows into a genuine hell. This is real torment here, these are not fantastical landscapes. And the comics are simply windows.
And this is a risky move, no doubt.
All too easily, Manco’s beautiful, painful vision’s of Hell so early on in the book (in just the second scene), could have been wasted. Not that they would have been any less dark or wonderful to behold, but wasted in the sense that you might not have bought into them fully. That they might have seemed just a little too unreal. Consequently, you would have had no emotional investment.
Clive Barker really knew what he was doing this time. Working with writing partner Christopher Monfette, Barker has really shaped the twisted, punishing sensibilities of the Hellraiser’s world as a logical extension of our own. It’s entirely the smallest of moments that Barker and Monfette are so sophisticated in wielding that makes all the difference.
The torture scene at the beginning of the book is hardly the kind of scene that would play out to a track by Slipknot. Instead, this is the domain of Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun’. At the exact moment the unnamed victim opens the puzzlebox and begins her screaming for home, Cyndi would be trilling, “Some boys take a beautiful girl and hide her away from the rest of the world”. Barker and Monfette’s Hellraiser #1 is an essay in how the ordinary collides with the supernatural. And the use of the Menotti quote that explains how Hell begins with the realization that you’ve failed to fulfill your gifts, serves only to anchor readers’ sensibilities. This is a Real Hell. And those fantastical landscapes beautifully and painstakingly rendered by Leonardo Manco are every bit a real, livable experience.
But beyond the abrupt collision of the real world with the abstract, Hellraiser #1 is the tale of a physical salvation. Barker’s construction of this aspect being the emotional core was very clear even during the Hellraiser: The Prelude, released yesterday and available free to download (follow the link). And perhaps this is what Barker has been aiming at all these many years now. The idea that for Hellraiser to be just picture perfect, you’d need a Playstation 13, the one decades from now where the feedback mechanism isn’t simply a controller vibrating in your hand but full body-immersion that makes your skin crawl.
Hellraiser is about the flesh. It is the destruction of the prideful, the lonely the morally-checkmated through the flesh. But if the titular Hellraiser is to find the salvation he seeks, that salvation would come through the flesh as well.
So how does Leonardo Manco teamed up with Christopher Monfette and Clive Barker himself compare to a technology that doesn’t yet exist?
In a word, magnificently.
My skin crawls at all the right moments. The sense of emotional connection to the idea of being judged is just too real, too immersive and provides for a deep and abiding emotional context. It is that emotional context that makes those fantastical all-too real. Particularly for me, particularly for the kind of person who finds it hard to engage with the idea of immaterial, abstract notions quantifying human evolution and aspiration.
And Hellraiser, ultimately is just astounding. As the tale of a quixotic rebellion by the titular Hellraiser (his pursuit of becoming human even as humans conspire to corrupt the root of his power), Hellraiser excels far beyond the horror genre. A functionary whose smallest actions have huge ramifications for the entire world, questioning his loyalty to his office? This is Captain Ahab, this is Moby Dick, or Kafka’s lavishly morose tale, “Poseidon”, or Alec Guiness as the wonderfully plodding counter-intelligence agent George Smiley in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.
Hellraiser #1 is a flawless tale told on an operatic canvas. What’s surprising is the ease with which it lures you to suspension of disbelief. But this is no surprise at all. Rather it comes as a result of an incredibly skilled team.
This book comes with the highest praise.
Hellraiser is supported by an 8-page, 12MB pre-release Prelude that can only be downloaded online. With nothing else hand, this prelude will catch you up on the full scope of the character, and give a context for the first issue. Follow the link to download, tweet and flike to spread.