Trying to define “horror,” ultimately, is one of the toughest and most subjective artistic projects because, at its heart, horror relies of value judgement and opinions. What one person considers “horrifying” won’t have the same impact on another person, at least not all the time.
You might read a comic, such as some of the Alien franchise works that have been released through Dark Horse comics over decades, because their body-horror aesthetic reaches you. Likewise, you could never have any desire to pick up anything with the Spawn label because, to you, any horror elements present are not your thing.
Some of the comics I wanted to touch on when I started this particular column series were, broadly speaking, attempts to try and reach out to some universal-ish topics. Comics that touch on the boundaries between the world of the living and the dead are worth talking about.
But as I started working on the originally-planned third and final part of this “trilogy,” a piece dealing with Garth Ennis and Caliban, the comic Man-Eaters took center stage.
In short, there was, and remains, a very real argument going on with the comic about who it is for, what it does and does not do, and how authors and fans interact. Having said all that, and with the preface here in place that I had originally planned something else originally for this piece, I want to transition now into why I think there is something about Man-Eaters that has a very genuine horror theme, despite its other egregious flaws.
Is Horror Political?
When addressing the nature of horror, it’s important to note that it is an artistic aesthetic in the same way romance or comedy is.
So, on the surface, you can’t ever say “horror” is, itself, political, but art which makes use of horror can indeed be a vehicle for contemporary and political issues. The strengths of horror as a political outlet are extensive, so before I really talk about Man-Eaters I have to talk about some examples of where horror and politics are used, for my purposes, in a “correct” manner.
By correct, I mean the following:
For horror to have a genuine political impact, I argue that the intention of the work must be clear and without the need of overt explanation. There must be a salient point or theme that, with or without the author’s historical input/commentary (or, those who set this up, such as editors or academics), is self-evident.
A story can have a horrific nature on its own and it can also have a political dimension which might be clear to contemporary audiences and historical audiences alike. In essence, the “horror” can come from two aspects, the aesthetic and the context. In the best cases, these two things build upon one another like a Möbius strip, one always informing the other.
To provide an example of an adapted work of literature I adore, which I will use to illustrate my comments above, let me point to Eric Shanower’s Age of Bronze comic series.
I have written about this series before and it holds up as a genuinely great series and a great attempt at adaptation which is always worth a read, if and when you ever get a chance. One of the best issues of the comic was a special issue released with a unique “horror” theme, Age of Bronze Special #1, a one-shot story that adapted the myth of Atreus and the House of Agamemnon’s gruesome history into a black-and-white horror story.
The story is an adaption of, among other things, Seneca’s Thyestes. Seneca, famed stoic philosopher and adviser to Emperor Nero, composed the play after he had retired from the Emperor’s services yet while he still lived during Nero’s late reign. Most accounts describe the play as a work which was put on in private homes, not explicitly something meant to be performed publicly, and the tone of the play suggest why. Thyestes focuses on the mad tyrant Atreus and the elaborate revenge plot he concocts against his brother, Thyestes. Thyestes was, by most modern accounts, a direct jab at the Emperor himself, this it was political piece as much as it was an artistic one.
In summation, Atreus has the children of Thyestes, his own nephews, killed and served to Thyestes while he is a guest in the palace. This horrifying can is commited over slights and offenses that had gone on between the brothers in their familial past. Seneca includes an adviser character in the play who cautions Atreus against his insane desires, but the advice is ignored, much how Seneca’s advice to Nero was believed to have been ignored as his reign progressed. Seneca, by making a play about a mad ruler who indulges his vices at the time in which he did, shows there was an implicit historical context to what he was trying to say, but that does not mean the horrific elements are either undone that they are not understandable if you have no such historical knowledge. Thyestes, and Shanower’s horror adaptation of the play and the myths surrounding Atreus and his family, work because they’re capable of existing on both levels.
Shanower’s Age of Bronze Special #1 translates Seneca’s ideas and the composite of the whole Atreus lineage into a composite piece that plays up the horror themes, such as dramatic expressions and lingering words for the comic’s subtitle being written in blood. Shanower and Seneca both adapted their works to appeal to a particularly straightforward idea: horror is an element that brings to mind fear when it is tied to images of blood, ambition and cruelty.
Thyestes and the Age of Bronze Special #1, I argue, are perfect horror examples of their respective eras, yet Shanower’s version has no overt political leanings or messages, either that readers have commented upon or that Shanower himself has provided. Meanwhile, Thyestes is a political work, however, as I have said, readers will be entertained by the gruesome plot regardless of how much or little Roman history they’re aware of.
So, to summarize: yes, horror can be political, but the best works are not impeded by this fact and, regardless of any political messages, the intention of the piece must be such that any reader who observes the work should not be confused as to the author or the work’s intention.
This is now where I want to transition into Man-Eaters because, in a sense, I feel this has some particularly “horror” elements which may well have tied into the climate of fear surrounding centers and camps right now among many communities of people — yet these elements are misused in a way that is accidental at best and intentional at worst.
Haunted Houses? Centers? Camps?
I don’t think it is an accident that the second season of AMC’s The Terror TV series is going to be taking place in a WW2 Japanese internment camp. George Takei, who serves as a producer on the series, gave a revealing interview on his time while having been interned with Deadline.com. As I was reading the piece, this one quote stood out to me:
It was when I became a teenager and became very curious about our imprisonment that I became a voracious reader in trying to learn as much as I could but I couldn’t find anything in the history books,” said Takei, who later turned to his father for more insight. “He was the one that shared his experience, his pain, his anguish.
This particular quote resonates with me because part of what keeps marginalized people’s pain hidden is the absence of publication, knowledge, testimonies and knowledge about their treatment at the hands of any group with power, either explicit power (such as federal/political power) or the kinds of power derived from conventional culture standards (such as when a society might lend more credence to the views or opinions of somebody of a white, cis, or 55+ age group).
The erasing of knowledge about the imprisoned and their stories is critical to be aware of and it should be prevented. The stories and history of US internment makes for a particularly critical vital artistic subject, one that demands respect and care in its crafting.
Stories told through the comic medium have the power to bust open conversations and knowledge about topics not all audience will be universally knowledgeable about. When it was announced (but not yet launched), I was very hopeful about Man-Eaters as an idea. After the first issue, alas, my hopes were dashed and I realized the tone and intent of the series was far, far less “horrific” than I was expecting and more in line with something that was almost satirical in nature, albeit with enough drama mixed into so as to not be a farce or parody comic.
Having returned to the comic recently to be better aware of contextual arguments going on with the story, I was shocked at issue #9 and the use of “rehabilitation” centers and their origins because, well, here was the bedrock of horror being utilized in a manner that mixed the message so utterly that I might argue it does a unique kind of disservice to both what the story could have been and what the story actually is.
The reason I commented about Takei and The Terror earlier is because, in a very real-world sense, one of the biggest horrors right now are not what goes on in private houses, a staple of our older horror stories, but rather in these new spaces, these centers and camps. The horror of a large open space run by people with power to subject the innocent to having their freedoms taken away is, literally, the opposite of a traditional prison system. I should also note here that I am classifying these spaces as ‘new’ in that spaces for the purposes I am talking about have been built and utilized in large numbers across the US since the 90s, to my knowledge, but it is obvious that the idea of a concentration camp is not new at all.
Typically, prison and corrections-oriented incarceration are meant to operate under the assumption that, if you’re there, you had the chance at a trial, your case was recorded and heard (so as to benefit from an appeal), and your term is limited by the penalties imposed upon you by a judge. In many, many states, and even in Texas, my home state, there are spaces — ones paid for by public taxpayer money — that trap and imprison people without a trial and these people are held there for undisclosed periods. In some cases, these people are held until they are eighteen, but that is not always the case and some people might be liable to be held past this age. These places are frequently pointed out to be open to oversight and inspection, yet in recent months the only news that comes from these locations is of death, abuse, and mismanagement.
Because of how utterly vital and real the horror of centers and camps are to gay, trans, migrant, asylum-seeking individuals, it is imperative that those who utilize these kinds of spaces in art be clear and on-point with what they are and how they operate. In a strange, almost schizophrenic manner, Man-Eaters #9 tries to use these camps as both a dangerous political message, but … also … as a joke?
Part of why I am writing this article is to work through the layers of this representation and how it fails, because there is something timely and critical in this comic that needs to be engaged with, yet the “origins” of this kind of space in the comic is bewilderingly skewed more to comedy, which I argue is a critical disservice to the legacy of these places, who operates them, and how they function.
Man-Eaters #9 presents the fictitious history of the “Ruminations” center, a space that is one of the many which handles women while they are observed for menstruation-linked transformations into were-cats, as follows. A panel depicts a group of men, men modeled in a rather sardonically “hipster” styles (with varied hair styles and mustaches). The men presented are clearly a jab at self-serving “Allies” who claim to have best interests of women at heart, yet who inadvertently come to service the desires of powerful groups like the Federal government in silencing women.
The historiography of Ruminations, however, is at odds with other aspects of the story, such as in the beginning when it is made abundantly clear that there have always been a federal element directly responsible for the controlling of women, as evidenced by the comic’s material itself, but particularly the first page of issue #9 itself.
“Some girls get locked up in containment camps, or sent to weird compounds where they try and pray the panther out of you,”
This passage implies that what Ruminations is exists as, perhaps, an off-branch of these kinds of spaces that was converted into what has become, a concentration camp? Perhaps?
The problem with this idea is that the men who operate Ruminations, these jolly “well-meaning” hipsters, are the same men operating the torture devices at the bottom of the building itself. They’re the masters of torture and thus they were always out to imprison and hurt women … but that isn’t clear from the way Ruminations is shown to have started. The mixed message of “what” Ruminations “is” is critical because you can’t have a clear horror or political message with a mixed tone of drama and comedy.
Man-Eaters’ desire to lampoon the well-meaning intentions of “woke” men as yet another layer of oppression those in power will use to ensnare and control women was certainly possible, it just would have required uniformed men taking the girls out of the hands of the hipsters and leading them behind “access only” approved spaces where these mustachioed men would have also not been allowed. Instead, as I mentioned, there is no clear divide between what role, explicitly, the government has in Ruminations and how these hipster-parody founders have with one another in any way that is clear.
I am drawing such attention to this because discourse about the horror of these kinds of spaces in comics must absolutely be either farcical or serious. I am not the kind of critic who will say art must be any one thing, because by definition it never will be, but the erasure of these stories is not always going to be a clear deletion of articles and testimonies.
Erasure can happen through mismanagement of the facts, such as how for generations there was a real historical trend to say the common German solider (and even citizen) knew nothing about the Holocaust and the efforts taken to exterminate all manner of people the government claimed were undesirable. Scholarship on this subject, particularly in the domain of history, has struggled for decades to finally label Germany, as a whole, complicit in the management of concentration camps.
In a sense, there was a narrative pushed that erased the facts of what was going on. Now, there were many reasons for this, some well-meaning (i.e. historians who genuinely believed there was a disconnect between the upper levels of the Reich and the S.S. and the common soldier) and some that were not (those who want to re-frame history so those found to indeed be culpable all along might feel better).
Man-Eaters is comic whose intentions were to push a satirical and horrific story in one package, and while the attempt may have worked if things had gone differently, the aspect of centers and camps has no space for confusion.
These kinds of spaces, spaces which imprison gay teens to they can be “cured,” or spaces where children are imprisoned for being asylum seekers who were brought towards the US by their parents, are part of an ongoing narrative that is going to be a stain on the United States in the same way the Holocaust was for Germany. These are not 1-to-1 parallels (that we know of), but they are in the same genus, and very capable of evolving into 1-to-1 parallels in time. I should also comment that how a center for “detention” works is obviously different than how a camp where teens are sent away for “therapy” are structurally different, but make no mistake: people die in both.
Man-Eaters has one brilliant passage which I might point to in an effort to call attention to something vital from it that should survive and last through other kinds of discourse:
“Everyone at Ruminations is betrayed by someone. A father, a brother, a son, sometimes even a mother or husband. We are all admitted by other people. Guardians. Caretakers.”
This line is chilling because it is not only true, but it highlights the betrayal of power government officials to when it is turned to by asylum seekers. Every child being held in federal custody is being betrayed by somebody their parents told them would help them, and that is horrific. This piece of Man-Eaters is important to the history of horror that these kinds of camps and centers represent.
What is also chilling, in regards to detention centers run by the government (but not so much in the same sense as the “therapy” camps which are often private) is that they operate because of public taxpayer funds. While there is space for an argument to be made that “our” taxpayer funds go to all kinds of atrocities, this is one I want to point to explicitly because it is within our borders.
There is a great gulf of disconnection between the ownership a taxpayer is going to be able to have between their dollars and a drone used overseas, but this? These camps? These centers? These are things which are close to home, and they’re a very real horror.
I wish Man-Eaters delivered a more responsible presentation of this political horror through its art and had done a stronger service to the meaning that these spaces have for gay and trans youth, as well as refugee and asylum seekers. Sadly, Man-Eaters is a flawed messenger whose tone is too inconsistent to properly engage in this topic, but I do hope its failure is not replicated. I want there to be other, newer works that will take a firm, strong stance on directly engaging with the powerful and influential people who are directly responsible for the modern horror that these camps and centers represent.