[8 August 2012]
PopMatters Comics Editor
Even the panorama of the two-page splash, is a small and myopic, and ultimately ugly vista. Just another piece of urban hell, the kind Linkin Park sang of so vividly when they first made it big (a decade back now) with Hybrid Theory. It’s Dr. Ben Dane walking into a jury-rigged OR where he has kept his surgically-tortured victim alive for far too long.
We know from the two or three lead-in pages that this is a makeshift Operating Room in an abandoned building. The kind we’re used to seeing from shows like The Wire. Our angle on this appalling scene is a birds-eye. We’re above looking down, but not far above. Colin Lorimer’s horrendously vivid panel border shows broken floorboards and tattered curtains as if we ourselves are immersed in this scene, looking down on it through the broken floorboards one floor above.
And worst of it? Ben Dane is a likable guy. We’ve gotten to know him on his walk back from the 24-hour minimart a couple of blocks over. Dane’s bought some ice, and in the monologue he’s meditated on personal failure and how lives can spiral out of control. He’s a cool, take-charge kind of guy. The kind you’d want in your foxhole when stuff goes down. And there’s a huge amount of cognitive dissonance when we finally discover, that what Dane’s really taking charge of, is the surgical torture of another human being. And that the hand-truckload of ice he’s jus bought, is for ensuring his victim remain conscious throughout the torture.
There’s a horrible, beautiful, savage Edgar Allan Poe quality immediately apparent in Harvest. This is the high art of Walt Whitman turned inside out and driven to terrifying conclusions. Rather than a celebration of the external world, as Whitman gave us, this is the Horror of the Edge that Poe inducted us into. How far can we immerse ourselves before we pull back? How long can we stare, before looking away?
It’s the horror of Irving Washington who ground up Paul Revere’s heroic ride into the stuff of nightmares. This isn’t the safe kind of horror we encountered in Sandman; intellectual terrors and conditionality projected into the world. And this isn’t the inundation horror of zombie stories like the Walking Dead. This is the actual mechanics of a nightmare. The how-far-before moment written into almost every panel of Harvest.
Perhaps the most elegant aspect of Harvest, and almost by necessity the most invisible, is AJ Lieberman’s magnificent command of story structure. The first issue of this five-parter reads already like the opening chapter of a completed graphic novel. If this were a TV show, I’d leave this opening episode unwatched, opting rather to NetFlix the full season when the time comes. And when the collected edition does appear, whether I’ve gotten review copies or not, I can easily foresee this being the kind of trade I’d buy more than one copy of and gifting it to friends and others. Primarily because, right from the get-go, it’s clear I’m already immersed in a fully-complete (if not at this stage just yet, fully-realized) story.
This opening chapter reads filled with micro-episodes. We’re walking Lieberman’s path to get to where we were at the beginning—with Ben Dane, disbarred trauma surgeon, torturing a still-living victim. The flashback to ten months ago run more like teasers than actual clues—who’s the kid dresses himself because he doesn’t mind looking ridiculous, why does he appear in Dane’s coke-addled vision, and what role will organ-runners Greer and Craven still play? These story-elements clearly serve the purpose of bringing us into a deeper realization of how Dane came to live in the role of torturer. But like an episode of Sherlock or an episode of House, we’re not going to be able to put those pieces together. So we may as well kick back and enjoy the ride.
Arguably, the most arresting of these micro-episodes, remains Dane’s own story. It’s elegance lies in how this narrative simply defies the deep-seated optimism found in House’s eight seasons, ended this last Spring. The inner logic of House, the deep character-drama was always, “What happened to House to make him as he is”. Earlier seasons of House was some of the most beautiful television made to date. It offered a three-way drama, the collision of three genre. The first was the medical, white coats, hospital halls and confounding medical conditions catered to that first genre. The second, unexpectedly, was the detective procedural. House’s very name was a play on “Holmes”; each week a new patient would only be a patient until the symptoms were properly identified and the correct diagnosis was made. But the third genre to intersect the show was the Western. Each week in those early seasons, House would (amoral as he was), find a higher morality be breaking the mediocritizing Ethical Guidelines of the AMA. In other words, he was the Sheriff who would pursue lawbreakers by himself breaking the law.
This logic held up for about the first three seasons. The show never really came back the same after the Writers’ Strike truncated the fourth season to just 16 episodes. After the cataclysmic season three finale, House became ever more the story of the mad, outlaw genius that was the central character. Who is he? Why doesn’t he express his love for his boss? Why not she her love for him? How did House get this way? It’s that focus on that last question during the show’s five final seasons that makes House, no matter how deep the sense of it is buried, optimistic. It’s the idea that House himself, isn’t the force of nature he first seems. The very fact of looking for House’s “backstory” suggests that one might be found. And finding a backstory, being able to socioculturally reconstitute House and “explain” him, is a deeply optimistic endeavor.
Lieberman and Lorimer’s Harvest almost immediately dismisses such an optimism. The Dane we meet first, the Dane of the present, is a thousand miles from the Dane we encounter on his downward spiral. The Dane of the present is cool and collected and controlled. He’s striking back at the situation that engineered him into (I think we can safely assume) becoming an organ harvester. But the Dane of ten months ago is already a wreck. He parties so hard with two call girls (at this point, you really hope they’re call girls, but who’s to say Dane himself didn’t debase them into becoming junkies?) that he cannot even recall what day it is. He performs surgery under these conditions. And when a patient dies, the Medical Board revokes his license to practice medicine.
And this is how Lieberman taps the true inner horror of the Edge. Don’t blink, Lieberman reminds us, don’t flinch, don’t look away. Confront the spiral of self-annihilation that Dane is already on, ten months ago, without looking for an explanation as to why. The true horror of this subgenre, is that there is now “why”. It’s that the pattern, if indeed there is one, is too complex to be readily understood, let alone to be analyzed and interpreted.
This isn’t event-driven horror like the hyper-modern Mars Attacks, this isn’t inundation horror like Walking Dead or the what-have-I-wrought, existential horror of David Hine’s superb reimagining of The Darkness. The horror of the Edge lies in the horror of confrontation. It is the story of our ancestors who were simultaneously frightened by and curious about lightning striking dry grass and causing fire. In the space of twenty-two, slim pages, AJ Lieberman has mastered exactly this. But so too has his collaborator and Harvest co-creator, Colin Lorimer. Lorimer offers us confrontation on every panel. Each page is parade day of faces staring directly, sometimes blankly, sometimes in anger, at the reader. Looking into those faces, you know you cannot go on. But then you turn the page anyway.
Ultimately, Harvest’s secret strength lies in it being a story told predominantly in flashback. It’s a profound message that what has happened, has already happened. And there’s no turning back. And there’s no walking away. It’s the anti-narrative of Western civilization. A deep and deeply necessary questioning of the social theory of historical progessionism—the notion that, ever since the Renaissance, we’ve been on an upward climb both technologically and socially. Harvest is what one of the keenest thinkers of our time, Snowball’s Chance author John Reed, has called for time and again—the deconstructing of Western culture’s deep need for salvation. In other words, redemption from outside agencies.
But perhaps more importantly, Harvest being told mostly in flashback, reminds us that, no matter the mythmaking we pull around it, history never moves forward by events, never moves in fits and starts, like a sputtering machine burning carbon. History instead, moves smoothly, it arcs and it spirals, it returns. It’s always personal, it always turns on the human confronting directly the absolute. But most of all, real history hinges on the very simple idea of process. Harvest is a landmark book for pulling together these strands, and for reminding us that when the Apocalypse comes, it will be personal, and like the flu medicine we yearn towards all winter long, it will be slow-release.