People often equate the terms ‘fear’ and ‘horror’, holding them to be identical in meaning but this simply isn’t true. Not coincidentally it’s also a mistake that most modern day attempts at this genre make. Fear is the feeling you have when you are frightened about what is to come: you feel fear for the character as they approach the closed cellar door, a shadow swiftly sweeping across the slight slit of light as their hand stretches slowly towards the handle. Horror, on the other hand, is being haunted by something that has already happened and cannot now be undone: it’s what you feel when the character is shoved to the ground by something supernaturally strong and upon standing sees traces of the slaughter that had occurred down in that dark room, knowing now that they are responsible for releasing something dreadful upon the world. I mention all of this so that when I say Anathema is a true ‘horror’ comic you will understand what I really mean by that term; it is a haunted, haunting text laced with love, loss and yes, lesbian lycanthropy.
So Anathema then is also a horror comic in the more conventional sense, starring all the creatures that come along with that territory. Witches, Vampires and Werewolves are nothing new to comics; in fact, thanks to some success with tween-audiences they are quickly becoming commonplace, a cliche. So caustic is their commonality that even an inventive take on their mythos, like the ones shown here – Anathema‘s vamps are crazed cult doctors draining damsels of their ‘animus’ – fail to seem overly special. Thankfully though the issues do still stand apart because of the weird world in which all of these creatures are placed; the setting is one that implements lost word from and hidden intricacies of our own history and invents around these much more harrowing horrors still. Marketing requires mention of those famous beasties but for me it was the beaked Plague masks and marching Templar’s in the first issue that most involved my imagination.
What probably caught most people’s eye about this book, the word that lead all the elevator pitches listed in news and reviews surrounding it, isn’t supernatural at all (although it is in my opinion super natural). That word? Lesbian. Mercy, the main character of the comic, is one but rather than simply providing pubescent boys something sexy at which to perv her very real seeming relationship is at the broken, beating heart of this book. Werewolf stories have long been linked to puberty, sexual awakenings and the aggravated urges and experimentation that these two can accrue in a person ( see, or perhaps don’t, the rather dissapointing Riven) but that isn’t what Anathema does with it’s dogs. For just as the story’s title and setting are ancient, its characters too are old; they are adults and thus their relationship is mature, it’s meaningful, which only serves to make its dissolution in the opening scene all the more shattering. Mercy’s loss is the real horror of this book; you feel that she almost longs for the times when she had someone to be afraid for.
This notion of sexuality isn’t simply something on the surface of the comic however, it resides strongly in the subtext too. Though it is slightly too early in the series to really start deconstructing the story – unlike some books the sub-text here is just that, below what is actually said and subtly spoken when it does breach – it is clear to see that there is something larger going on here. The vast majority of the characters are female – and full figured though rarely full-clothed ones at that – but this isn’t simply some feminist resetting of the familiar since Mercy aside these women are still victims and voraciously sexualised ones at that. There is also a sadistic element to the whole affair; the primary antagonist is a demon that drinks of female suffering and Mercy has a masochistic way of making her enemies pay; reveling in the hits she takes almost as much as those she gives.
Were the script not written by a woman in Rachel Deering one would almost have to wonder what artist Chris Mooneyham’s chief intention was. Whatever the answer his art is impeccable; dark and detailed his panels captures perfectly both the grit and Hammer-esque ham of the stories many drastically different scenes. Ian Herring and Fares Maese make these tonal effects even more pronounced with their striking use of bold colours against the deep, scratchy blacks of the original ink. The figures used are all great examples of character design; each unique, easily recognizable and emotionally available. The creature concepts, especially that of the lithe, feminine werewolf are also applaudable.
These terrific themes and thoughts though are only the abstract texture behind the text proper and unfortunately the actual on-the-page content of the comic is a little less inspired. The series is heavily structured, shaped liked the classic quest stories of old, with an introductory issue up front, followed by four beast of the week battles and a climactic coda ( presumably. This at least seems to be the case based on the three issues released thus far and the direction in which the story is heading). There is nothing inherently wrong with following a formula such as this – it became classic for a reason after all – but when so much of the book is brilliantly unique these overly familiar elements tend to stick out sorely.
To be honest I would go so far as to say that the series itself is split in a way similar to Mercy’s own schizoid situation; just as her smart, sensitive human side is stuck in conflict with the snarling beast within, Deering’s script struggles sometimes to convincingly combine the action of horror with the headier and more heartfelt elements of the story. Take, for instance, the scenes in which wolf Mercy fights off some evil monster; these felt to me as if taken from a different book to that of the deep-feeling flashbacks and detailed civilian world. The boring battle structure, the Peter Parker-esque pun-filled blow by blow narration and the inevitable yet unconvincing victories all fell a little flat for me. Compared to the rest of the comic these conflicts simply weren’t interesting and thus the present-day action of the protagonist often wasn’t either.
Thankfully though this is more of a flesh wound then a fatal one, it will not cause me to cast the book out like the title instructs. No, it easily has me hooked for its final three issues when they come but I just can’t help but think that it could have been something much, much better without too big a set of changes. Anathema is then a horror book in yet another way; it is a story haunted by regret on more than the textual level. I don’t, however, fear what is to come in the story’s future, in fact I look forward to seeing it and hope that like all good horror the climax will provide some catharsis on this, that it proves me wrong and puts my worries to rest even as it unsettles me further.