The Comics Classroom: Cathartic Horror, JOOK JOINT, and Mahalia

In the previous part of this horror exploration series, I mentioned how art-horror was something different from other kinds of horror, i.e. being scared from a work designed to terrify was different than being scared in the real world by a snake or anything else. While I previously engaged with New Mutants and Demon Bear in a way that addressed a very broad kind of horror examination, this piece will explore a different side of horror, the side that deals with catharsis.

Horror, when used through art, is a way to engage with and release emotions, albeit not emotions of joy and happiness, the kinds of things which typically are within the domain of comedy. While the classical concept of tragedy is not explicitly inclusive of horror, the sensation (not the genre) is something tied into the tragic. Horror, as a genre, is an 18th century adaption, but it cannot be said that art has ignored horror or the catharsis it can bring.

Cover art by Alitha Martinez

In a very real sense, what terrifies us has been part of why we tell stories at all. Sometimes, we tell stories of what terrifies us as a warning and other times we tell these stories to vent our feelings. Jook Joint by Tee Franklin and Alitha Martinez is a work that teaches through horror as much as it also vents.

Before I go further into this piece, I feel I should praise the effort that Franklin puts into making Jook Joint a piece that pushes the boundaries of horror in a comic while also remaining steadfastly up-front about one fact: that just because you can be horrified does not mean you must subject yourself to such when these sensations would be unwanted. The front of the issue directly explains that there is content within Jook Joint that may not be for everyone. As a piece of art it engages with all potential readers so that it only attracts attention from those who want to be scared, knowing what is within the pages.

Interior art by Alitha Martinez

For those who may not exactly know the subject matter within, Franklin’s warning serves as an honest sign-post to stay away so that art-horror — horror for enjoyment and sensation — does not become something traumatic, unwarranted, and undesired. I feel like this also helps establish “how” art-horror functions, because Franklin and Martinez both want you to feel sensations in their work, but they’re open about the fact that this is also a cathartic work, stated openly in the backmatter of the first issue.

It isn’t easy to become immersed in horror that is venting the innermost tensions and desires of others, but it’s clear that Jook Joint is looking for willing participants, not unwitting victims.

The dominant focus of the horror aspect within Jook Joint comes from the age old trope of transgression. We have spent our time since before we wrote down stories on materials that either teach or vent through stories. And one of the earliest kinds of stories we told were warnings about what was and what was not safe. If you stepped foot beyond a certain forbidden forest, you faced danger. If you committed the wrong kind of act, such as cannibalism, you would offend the gods. We invested a great amount of time and effort to craft effective stories to warn others what not to do so that they can be safe.

Interior art by Alitha Martinez

Franklin pushes the idea of warnings and transgressions to the forefront of her story in a direct manner since it is in the signs and warnings within the titular Jook Joint of Mahalia that the danger dwells. Signs such as KEEP YOUR HANDS TO YOURSELF and RESPECT EVERYONE plaster the walls of Mahalia’s establishment, an obvious and direct warning to everyone within.

The patrons, those who arrive to be their true selves, embrace all manner of actions which would have been taboo during the 1950s-ish time period in which Jook Joint takes place. While everything appears to show a haven for outcasts, there is an ever-present danger of reality leaking into this space from those who cannot and will not follow Mahalia’s rules. Those who want to punish others for their desires make their way into the establishment, and it is Mahalia herself who finds and punishes some of these figures, although it can be seen that her female companion/compatriots are more than capable of taking care of themselves.

Interior art by Alitha Martinez

One of the first genuinely horrific acts in the comic comes when one of the guests makes unwanted advances towards one of established occupants, a woman named Leticia. The offending patron, Sebastian, touches Leticia in a manner she did not invite and he then insults her when she rejects him.

Sebastian is an embodiment of what many women experience in our current world, physically and emotionally. Sebastian asks for Leticia to smile, he pushes against her will within his own in the hopes of getting what he wants, sex, at the expense of the Jook Joint’s rules. He commits a transgression against not only what Mahalia’s rules are, but against what decency dictates is allowable and reasonable.

Unfortunately, transgression within Jook Joint is not transgression in the normal world, hence why his fate is horrific as art. Readers know as soon as they see Leticia waiting for him outside the Jook Joint that Sebastian is finished, but the tension comes from the anticipation of “how” he’ll be punished. In one swift motion, Leticia rips Sebastian’s jaw off as a grisly retort to his requests that she smile.

Interior art by Alitha Martinez

By this point it is clear that catharsis, the venting of emotions, is the goal of this art-horror comic. Through the rules of the Jook Joint itself, wrongdoers are punished by the establishment in manners seeming to befit their transgressions. Why? Because there is nobody else who can or will. There are no police within Jook Joint, it is explicitly a space where people go to escape the fact that they have no outlet or justice in the “mundane” world. And, in this world, the world of horror, it is Mahalia who reigns supreme.

Mahalia is a fascinating character because she is both a survivor and a monster at the same time. She has powers beyond that of mortals, an expanded lifespan and the ability to help or harm mortals. She is also sympathetic because, as Franklin reveals more about her, we learn she is a domestic abuse survivor, much like Franklin herself.

Jook Joint’s backmatter has Franklin explain how the comic exists as a release for her feelings and emotions after a terrible trauma. Her therapy, her release, is part of “what” Mahalia is. While we, as readers, will never truly understand what Franklin has gone through, we can get to know Mahalia as a complex victim and as a powerful monster.

It should be worth noting here that when I say “monster,” I am not explicitly speaking about morality, but physicality. Whatever it is that Mahalia and her comrades are, it is clear that they’re either no longer human or that they’re engaging in fulfillment of whatever price in blood is required to escape their humanity.

Interior art by Alitha Martinez

The depths of Jook Joint are a domain of catharsis taken to a terrifying place, a space of cannibalism by women against men, a space where the only rules are, seemingly, whatever Mahalia desires. Victims who have transgressed in the upper spaces of Jook Joint become food for Mahalia and her family below. While there is a slight desire to see the fates of these men as being worse than what typical justice would demand, it is worth remembering that horror is not about fairness, and cathartic horror is not about balancing out the sensibilities of the reader.

Cathartic horror is about the creator(s) releasing their emotions on a canvas to symbolically revise reality so that, in this case, victims actually get justice. The men captured by Mahalia entered her domain and broke her rules, thus by the rules of the comic they’re meeting the fate they were warned, explicitly, about. Horror touches on what happens when people willingly and unwillingly transgress into the domains of monsters, but Jook Joint makes it clear who will be punished and why. One aspect to this horror, then, is in knowing normal victims cannot present their abusers with clear terms and punishments.

The remainder of the story in Jook Joint #1 takes a bit of turn and shows the more of the sympathetic and dangerous qualities of Mahalia to readers. Mahalia uses her knowledge to help an innocent child, yet she also uses her magical abilities to ensure that an abuse victim reaches out to her. This young woman, Heloise, suffers at the hands of her husband, Jean-Pierre.

Interior art by Alitha Martinez

As a reader, it might be unclear as to if Mahalia is luring Heloise to her or simply presenting her with the desire to enter the Jook Joint for help, but regardless it is clear that Mahalia makes the first move in setting up a meeting with Heloise, so unlike the patrons who transgress within the Jook Joint, Heloise is setting up a different branch of the story. So, what makes Heloise and her possible fate different from the fate of Sebastian and the other men who have transgressed against Mahalia?

It can be said in horror that there are two kinds of transgressions, ones done in defiance of the “rules” and ones done unwittingly. Typically, we as readers tend to be more sympathetic to the plight of those who unknowingly violate rules set by monsters and magical beings, at least somewhat. I can’t think of anybody who completely feels bad for the kids who decide to enter a haunted house because, at heart, we all know what the genre of horror is about: seeing who survives and being frightened as an emotional release.

Heloise, I might argue, is in a precarious state at the end of Jook Joint #1 because she is a victim of abuse who is offered the ability to escape that abuse through Mahalia and her gifts. Readers know Mahalia can save the innocent, like she helps the small child, so we at least get the sense her justice is oriented more towards victims than casual people in the street. We know people need to come to her, but we also know she is actively seeking Heloise out. Heloise is made an offer to get Jean-Pierre out of her life with or without violence, to which Heloise replies that she wants him to suffer.

Interior art by Alitha Martinez

Or, does she? Readers who have gone through abuse can certainly relate to wanting revenge as opposed to justice in the formal sense. It’s a very real struggle, yet it is also why we don’t allow the victim to see the punishment for crimes. Here, Mahalia is seemingly exiting the enforced domain of her Jook Joint’s rules to get involved in the deep waters of suffering that normal people engage with … and to grant their wish.

It is important to note that Heloise is explicitly stated to be in charge of Jean-Piere’s fate, through Mahalia’s magic, yet at the last minute we see her question what she has done. This, in reality and in the comic, is real horror, the feeling of wanting something and getting it, only afterwards to sense that perhaps you’ve transgressed over a line you cannot return from.

Jook Joint #1 is a comic immersed in granting power to the abused, to seeing them capable of new forms and abilities so they can revenge themselves upon the world. There is a fabulous scene where Mahalia descends beneath the bayou alongside the Jook Joint itself so she can enter the space where she can finally be herself, a cannibalistic entity who grants power to victims at steep prices and who enjoys a family life very much unlike the mundane world.

Cover art by Mike Hawthorne

Because Mahalia is a cathartic horror being, she contains within her something more than just terrifying power, she has within her a desire for justice and fairness, just ones enforced by whatever it is that also requires her to feed on victims. We are horrified of Mahalia, perhaps, because she is both exactly what we hope somebody never dispatches upon us for our sins and also because she is exactly what we know, under the right circumstances of injustice, we ourselves could become.

Regardless of which of these terrifies you more, it is clear that some part of author Tee Franklin and artist Alitha Martinez needed Mahalia to become manifest for their own collective release on behalf of those who have suffered. I welcome her existence as art for what she represents as much as I am terrified of what she gets up to beneath the bayou of her Jook Joint establishment.

Always remember the rules:
Keep your hands to yourself…
Respect everyone…
Live to see tomorrow.


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