Written by Patrick Kindlon
Art by Maria Llovet and Jim Campbell
Published by Black Mask Studio
Release Date: December 13, 2017

While politically muted relative to the first wave of Black Mask’s output, There’s Nothing There finds its own way to insurgency, bypassing the orthodoxy of horror comics to deliver a sleek, sexy thrill ride.

My first impression of There’s Nothing There reading the opening issue was that it put me in the frame of mind of a sexier, queerer treatment of Malachi Ward and Matt Sheean’s Ancestor. Between those two comics, I absolutely am never going to attend any party thrown by an eccentric rich white man because it seems like they’re all either trying to hyper-accelerate human evolution as part of an objectivist plot, or in the case of There’s Nothing There, exploit the energy raised by a high class, Eyes Wide Shut-style orgy to summon a demon towards ambiguous, but probably similar ends.

There’s Nothing There is a comic that recognizes that there’s a range of comics and film from Ancestor and From Hell to Jennifer’s Body and The Sacrament that dig deep into the marrow of the power dynamics and occult histories that go into the kind of rituals that it opens with and thus doesn’t need to till that soil all over again. It can warm us up to the concept and simply carry on with what it wants to do, which is deliver a streamlined, aesthetically driven experience.

It’s incredibly sleek in that way, lopping off the details that other narratives live in short hand it trusts its audience to handle. Reno, the ostensible hero of the series, an ill defined, sexually fluid socialite between seasons of a reality tv show is the epitome of that sensibility and where it succeeds the most. What we know as an audience is that she’s rich and famous, but what we don’t know, at any point in the series, is how she made it there. In one sense, it isn’t necessary to drive the story, but it’s also a reflection of the media culture we live in, especially given that a significant portion of the Kardashians’ fanbase were infants during the OJ Simpson trial if they were even born yet.

My second impression, which didn’t really settle in until after I’d blazed through the trade, was that it’s taken over a decade longer than it should for comics to reach the moment that produced There’s Nothing There. The dubiously famous socialite is an archetype that is absolutely relevant in the here and now, but in the golden age of the news media acting like a gruesome flock of vultures when grown up child stars and suddenly famous socialites having meltdowns in the public eye, it was almost completely absent from comics as a social phenomenon to be dug into.

The closest thing I can recall around the time that Lindsay Lohan was being arrested on DUI charges and Britney Spears was shaving her head is recalling Warren Ellis describing his take on Boom Boom for Nextwave: Agents of HATE as being “Paris Hilton with a radioactive vagina” or the abortive attempt to portray a reanimated Princess Diana in X-Statix.

The response within horror film was to attract audiences to see Paris Hilton die in House of Wax in order to fulfill a deeply misogynist urge to see violence done to her in retaliation for achieving fame and a public profile via mechanisms they didn’t respect. It took another three years for her to aggressively pursue and ultimately win the self satirical role of Amber Sweet in Repo: The Genetic Opera, and mainstream comics didn’t begin to see a significant examination of the dynamics in play, especially the misogyny aimed at women in the public spotlight who achieve fame and transgress in these specific ways until Ales Kot took it up in 2015 as one of the many threads that ran through Material.

It’s a curious demand to level at comics. What duty does the medium have to unpick all the threads that converge in the life of a young female socialite pushed in to the public eye with the intention of seeing her break? The answer, as with at least two thirds of all questions about comics as a medium, is Batman. The playboy socialite driven by unknowable angst and a passion for what one character in There’s Nothing There describes as “champagne socialism” is the most enduring and lucrative power fantasy the medium has to offer.

The idea of trying to capture both the visceral and material thrill of Bruce Wayne is a nascent one in comics, first undertaken with a level of level of seriousness worth remarking on in Kate Kane, who initially emerged as a Gotham City riff on The L Word’s Helena Peabody before being repackaged as the hyper competent, hyper sexual, hyper maudlin human razorblade that Greg Rucka and J.H. Williams III unleashed on the world in their Detective Comics collaboration. The upgraded, angrier, darker, and more abstract version took another decade to manifest in Jody Houser and Gerard Way’s Mother Panic.

So Reno, unencumbered by anything as unseemly as guilt or the gothic, arrives as pure fantasy for an actual female readership, ready to take on the role of subject, object, or a hybrid of the two adjusted for individual taste. It’s a characterization that gets to live in the nuance of writer Patrick Kindlon’s dialogue and artist Maria Llovett’s figures and framing. Kindlon avoids the obvious pitfalls of writing the kind of social milieu that Reno moves in, eschewing the ugly, lifeless nihilism of Bret Easton Ellis as well as the all too common empty headed Gossip Girl cattiness that pervades female friendships in comics.

Reno is a bright, self aware young woman navigating the push and pull of privilege and the misogyny of the public eye she was born into. She’s hedonistic, sarcastic, and maintains little more than a surface tension understanding of the world outside her penthouse, but the core relationships in her life, especially with her best friend Celia, are built on mutual support and trust. It’s a friendship as thrilling and welcoming to vicarious thrills as the sex, drugs, and couture.

It’s Llovett’s captivating artwork that truly brings the limited agency of Reno’s existence to glorious life in how she cartoons Reno’s figure and manipulates our vantage point on her world. In a comic as immediately erotic as There’s Nothing There, it becomes startlingly clear just how contingent on figure and emphasis eroticism is in comics, drawing the line between accessible thrill and misogynist exploitation. Llovett’s impressionistic figures emphasizing shape and movement over precision as well as her focus on tactility and expression create a rarely seen frenetic sexual energy that the medium could stand to see a lot more of.

Her ability to control depth of field and employ sharp, immediately understood foreshortening in tandem with loose inks that shift wildly between spiderly thin and bluntly thick line weights is what lubricates the comic into a page turning thrill ride easily devoured in a night when read in trade, but also demands return visits to pick apart exactly what drives the experience.

There’s Nothing There is the sleekest, sexiest reading experience of the year that demands two copies: one for yourself and one to put under the tree of someone who’s never had reason to believe comic like this actually exist.

The Verdict: 10/10


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