Riding in Cars with Witches: “Coffin Hill #2”

[13 November 2013]

By shathley Q

PopMatters Comics Editor

I love Inaki Miranda’s cars.

There’s a scene right near the opening where Eve Coffin returns to her now abandoned family at Coffin Hill, just outside Salem, Massachusetts and wanders through the derelict halls and spacious ballrooms and cobwebbed grand staircases and eventually finds herself in the visually distinct garage. Even though the garage itself is old and dank and easily gives you the sense that the stones themselves are water-logged and that the creeping moss somehow seems threatening, every car in the garage is in pristine condition. None more so than the beautiful ‘60s era, James Bond iconic, Astin Martin DB5.

The DB5 seems otherworldly. There’s a shine coming Miranda’s rendering, and it’s so convincing a shine that you can begin to imagine the sound of the engine purring as Eve picks the keys off the key-board. You can imagine running your hands over the finish and imagine the metal feeling cold in the crisp Massachusetts winter. Miranda’s beautiful visualization of the Astin offers a deep, inner realism to Eve Coffin and her eerie world of legacy witchcraft (writer Caitlin Kittredge offers some deep background with Eve musing while she wanders through the abandoned Coffin Hill—it was Eve’s ancestor who was responsible for the strange goings-on Back When, and that same ancestor who escaped and framed the girls murdered during the Salem Witch Trials).

It’s not just Miranda’s Astin that is so lovingly and convincingly rendered. The Coffin Hill Police Chief’s squad car seems to be an actual squad car, cast lazily, daringly on the comics page as if it were still life. It’s practical, sturdy, early twenty-first century, but already beginning to look familiar and just at the edges of out-of-date. It’s a point of access, of reliable reader-association that this is an element very much from the real world. And it lends a weight and an authority (authored-ness and certainty) to the more supernatural elements of the tale being woven. And of course, it exploits a deep psychological mechanic involved in comics storytelling.

As far as the horror genre goes, Caitlin Kittredge has already achieved an unexpected conceptual victory—she’s been able to assert crucial horror-genre elements in a serialized format. In the first issue we encountered Eve Coffin, castaway daughter of a wealthy, corrupt and darkly supernatural Massachusetts kingmaker family. Eve seems to have escaped the dark future prescribed by her line (and provoked by her own ritualistic exploration of the woods around Coffin Hill, as a teen) by becoming a Boston PD cop. But in the life-shattering events depicted during the first issue’s opening montage, rookie cop Coffin not only apprehended an active serial killer, but also fell into a spiral that would see her return to Coffin Hill.

Thematically, Kittredge has pivoted the drama around Eve herself. Just how much of the mess in Eve’s life, and the current shambles her family finds itself in (although, deliciously, the exact details of those shambles are being withheld for the moment) is Eve’s fault? Not fault in the sense that her actions are directly or even indirectly responsible for the current state of affairs. But fault in the deeper sense of what she is, rather than what she did. How much of the current trouble is down to Eve simply being in the world? And if there is some dark supernatural legacy that Eve finds herself the current heir to, how does she interact with it? When she was younger, flashbacks clearly tell, she ostensibly embraced her witchcraft a little more strongly. But now, has she completely disavowed it?

Now in issue #2, “The Waters and the Wild,” we see traditional horror elements creep into the story more readily. Eve seemingly commands a full murder of crows (or was that a parliament of ravens?), she navigates her way through the woods directly to the buried skull of a missing girl, and in a blood-chillingly graphic centerfold drawn with disturbing mastery by Miranda, the story of That Night In The Woods when Eve was young and when everything went sideways is unfolded just a little more.

With the rise of more traditional horror elements, Miranda’s gorgeous cars become equal parts safety line, and guide-wire. They establish a sense of security for you to retreat into when the violence becomes all too supernatural, as well they help your mind construct a credible approximation of this being able to take place in a “real” world, as real as Morgan Freeman combing the woods for clues in Kiss the Girls.

That categorical distinction within Miranda’s visual style that at some moments (as with characters) offers up slight detail and allow readers to “animate” certain aspects with their own emotions and sense of self, while at other moments allows readers to “accept” different elements as real, is termed the “masking effect” and is discussed in great detail in Scott McCloud’s profound Understanding Comics. But the leap that McCloud doesn’t make is to connect the masking effect to a similar project that Tom Wolfe undertook with New Journalism—the idea that writing should craft a sense of immediacy by describing the physical environments in which interviews took place.

It’s in this sense that Miranda’s use of the masking effect, in particular in the pages of Coffin Hill begins to take on a New Journalistic flavor, and puts him on the same footing (albeit in a markedly different arena) as writers like Hunter Thompson or Michael Herr.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/176362-riding-in-cars-with-witches-coffin-hill-2/