Borderland Speakeasy #15: "Nothing is as lost as I"
Packed to the gills with historical references and allusions to infamous terrors (chiefly Victorian and/or tentacled), Jenny Finn: Doom Messiah offers an irresistible slice of pulpy pastiche from Hellboy's Mike Mignola.
A popular interpretation of the "Ring Around the Rosie" nursery rhyme positions it as a metaphor for the Black Plague. While that is most likely an incorrect interpretation (according to Snopes.com), it's one that has caught on, virus-like, and it comes to mind when reading Jenny Finn: Doom Messiah.
A similar folksong-styled rhyme recurs throughout the four issues of the horror comic, which was written by Mike Mignola and Troy Nixey:
Where you goin'?
Where you been?
What you doin'?
What you done?
Can you catch me if I run?"
While it's never explicitly interpreted in the story, this rhyme would seem to be another metaphor for sickness running rampant throughout Victorian England. The disease could be the fishy, tentacle-like lesions that are appearing on residents of the seaside town at the centre of the tale. Or the disease could refer to the wickedness that plagues the denizens: greed, power, exploitation, degradation and sex.
The Typhoid Mary of the mysterious illness is Jenny Finn, a strange young woman discovered in the belly of a dead sea monster. People who come into contact with Jenny tend to undergo physical transformations, which begin with the fishy, wriggly outgrowths and spread until the entire body becomes a mass of tentacles and parts of squirmy sea creatures. While the story suggests that this transformation follows sexual contact, there are also hints that the disease can be spread via "infected" pools and puddles of water.
Amid this weirdness, a Jack the Ripper-styled killer is hunting down prostitutes, while a representative of the Prime Minister (wearing a steampunk-ish face mask) is questioning and rounding up citizens. There are also appearances by spiritualists, slaughterhouses, mad scientists and secret societies, as well as references to the Elephant Man, Dickensian settings and even a Jacob Marley-esque ghost.
Jenny Finn made its first appearance in 1999, and the subsequent three issues followed sporadically over the years. Boom! Studios published a one-volume collection in 2008, coinciding with the release of the film Hellboy 2, and even though Big Red doesn't appear in the story, Jenny Finn could easily take place in his universe.
Mignola is easily the best-known artist involved in Jenny Finn (he also provided the cover art), but Nixey's work captured the eye of Mignola's highest-profile collaborator. Hellboy director Guillermo del Toro chose Nixey to direct the remake of Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, which del Toro co-wrote and produced.
"I was a big fan of the comic books already," del Toro said at Comic-Con 2010 (as reported by Collider.com and elsewhere). "Jenny Finn was the first time I saw his work, and I lost it over an original piece of art he did of Jenny Finn in the bed with the tentacles spilling over the blanket. It’s in my house now."
While the black and white art was done by Nixey and Farel Dalrymple, with lettering by Pat Brosseau and Ed Dukeshire, the visual style is Mignola-esque. At times, the thick and energetic brushstrokes are also evocative of Paul Pope.
Like much of Mignola's work, Jenny Finn presents a vivid, powerful and haunting pastiche of pulp and weird fiction (usually of the sort associated with the 1920s and 1930s). Where Hellboy tends to draw from the work of Robert E. Howard, the strongest influence at play in Jenny Finn seems to be H.P. Lovecraft.
"Can it be possible that this planet has actually spawned such things; that human eyes have truly seen, as objective flesh, what man has hitherto known only in febrile phantasy and tenuous legend?" the narrator asks, in Lovecraft's story, The Shadow Over Innsmouth, which tells of an encounter with a half-human, half-sea-creature collection of beings who inhabit the titular seaside town.
"And yet I saw them in a limitless stream - flopping, hopping, croaking, bleating - urging inhumanly through the spectral moonlight in a grotesque, malignant saraband of fantastic nightmare. And some of them had tall tiaras of that nameless whitish-gold metal ... and some were strangely robed ... and one, who led the way, was clad in a ghoulishly humped black coat and striped trousers, and had a man's felt hat perched on the shapeless thing that answered for a head."
These creatures resemble Jenny Finn's victims, and the story's backdrop of cults seeking esoteric knowledge (as they seem to do in much of Lovecraft's work) bears comparison to the secret societies with royal connections lurking in Jenny Finn's shadows.
The range of allusions in Jenny Finn doesn't stop at the borders of the western world. The sea creatures are reminiscent of the Japanese monster known as the Umi-bozu, described in Hiroko Yoda and Matt Alt's Yokai Attack as having a "domed, jellyfish-like body."
"Some say they are the vengeful spirits of drowned sailors; others say they are strange mutations of deep-sea like taking monstrous supernatural form," write Yoda and Alt. "[They] are often described as issuing an unsettling sighing or moaning sound."
These sounds seem to echo the plaintive and haunting "doom" issuing from fish throughout the city in Jenny Finn. The title character's role as a sort of vengeful spirit also recalls the young women at the centre of J-horror movies such as The Grudge and Ring, which also have precedents in Japanese mythology.
One of the most interesting aspects of Jenny Finn is the way it positions the monster as an innocent. To the dwellers of the poorest sections of town, she's a "saint," her disease having cured their ailments. She comes to love Joe, a Hellboy-ish big guy who wants to protect her. Compared to Jenny's good nature and empathy, most of the humans she encounters are monstrous and horrific. She's also aware of her separation from the world of humans, and of her destructive/transformative power.
"Man of this world," she says to Joe, "nothing is as lost as I."
There even seems to be a visual allusion with regards to her melancholy and aloof nature, as she resembles one of the most iconic figures of Victorian loneliness, mystery and the macabre, Emily Dickinson. An epitaph for some of the crueler characters in Jenny Finn would be Dickinson's, "Drowning is not so pitiful/As the attempt to rise..."
Ultimately, there's a pleasing, puzzling mystery to young Jenny's unfortunate interactions with humanity. Her outer monstrosity highlights the monstrous behaviour of the people surrounding her. Like the best monster stories, this resonates with the notion of monsters as representations of human psychological conflicts.
"Promiscuously combining incongruent organic elements, the monster also unifies the moral opposites that comprise human comprehension," writes anthropologist David D. Gilmore in Monsters: Evil Beings, Mythical Beasts, and All Manner of Imaginary Terrors. "Ugly and malevolent, the monster is demonic of course, but it is also paradoxically divine; in its mystery and power, god-like and unfathomable, an object of reverence, and of admiration--even of identification--as well as of fear and loathing."