Writer & Artist: Ed Piskor
Warning: Potential Spoilers Imminent
Fantagraphics presents Eisner Award-winning Ed Piskor’s new foray into a shared universe with Red Room #1 & 2, that results in two mutilated thumbs-up. I was hesitant after the first few pages of the deluxe 64-page first issue, the carnage illustrated disturbing my delicate sensibilities. It was only when I realized that this was the point that I began to fully appreciate what I was seeing. The gore and diabolical prose are merely the surface level of a modern homage to a grand tradition in the medium of comic books.
Piskor describes his work as “splatterpunk” and “as modern day E.C. Comics, infused with the dream of Black Mirror.” The underlying theme of this assessment is the subversion inherent to splatterpunk and E.C. Comics. For those who may not know, splatterpunk arrived as a subversive form in '80s horror comics (categorized also by intense gore), and E.C. Comics were the creators of MAD Magazine into the '60s. On splatterpunk, Robert Bloch once stated, “There is a distinction to be made between that which inspires terror and that which inspires nausea.” This statement was meant as a criticism, but I feel it’s the height of compliments when understood concurrently with splatterpunk’s goal of social commentary. Some things should make us sick. Red Room focuses on this feeling by displaying the depravity of humanity and then poking it with a stick.
The world of Red Room (thus far) is a sci-fi (yeah, it’s also science fiction) extrapolation of what we would call snuff films. Capitalism and cryptocurrency have inundated the snuff culture into a full blown industry on the dark web, an evil Hollywood if you will. This new industry is run by five families with their own approaches to murdering people on livestream while viewers pledge bitcoin and comment requests. The first issues of Red Room show us the methods used by two of the aforementioned families, the first issue concurrently detailing a man’s descent into full, self-actualized evil. This journey was a rough one to take, but demonstrates the hidden faces that many wear in public. These families wear masks when filming their murderous episodes, often utilizing gimmicks and ploys to up the bitcoin donations. You can’t help but see these masks as their real faces, a poignant statement on internet culture, and the bravery that comes hand-in-hand with anonymity.
The second issue sets out to address where these streaming stars’ screaming victims come from...and it’s quite messed up. A cross between concentration camps and inbreeding provides one family with all the cannon fodder they need. There is an odd poetry in this as these humans are made specifically for the stream, for the internet, for us. Everyday individuals log in to see personalities commit atrocities against those created to receive atrocities. More unsettling is the diversity of those logging in. Lawyers, police, county clerks, curious teenagers. . .everyday people who you pass in the supermarket and stand behind at Starbucks.
Piskor’s prose is crude on purpose (especially with authoritative characters like police), delivering blunt-force trauma to the ideas we have concerning what is taboo and whether we can progress as a society without addressing that which is taboo. Those characters who demonstrate complexity are those who embrace this new murderous turn for society as a means of expression and economy. Exploring the minds and actions of these characters never seems so exaggerated as to be out of reach for the imagination when concerning the world now. A terrifying thought to be sure.
Piskor’s art is a brilliant ode to Underground Comix. The pages themselves are off-white and resemble the comics that counterculture kids would keep under their mattresses to avoid a parental raid inspired by Wertham’s attacks on the medium in the '50s. The panels are pencil sketched and as crude as the prose. We are seeing something off the beaten track that is not meant to be seen, a feeling that keeps the pages turning. The gore is illustrated well in this style, grotesquely clear in its eviscerations and dismemberments. The old school comix aesthetic merges with computer screen imagery that brings this work to the modern day and the modern consciousness.
This is a series worth reading, but be prepared to dispense with innocence. Red Room #1 released on May 19, and Red Room #2 goes on sale June 23rd. Pick it up at your local comic shop or Comixology!
If you’re interested in more Piskor, check out the Hip Hop Family Tree graphic novels from the same places! If you would like to learn more about Underground Comix as a whole, I highly recommend Why Comics?: From Underground to Everywhere by Hillary Chute, available on Amazon.