Anthologies are the foundation stone of comics. So many characters and creators got their starts in 8 page tales of wonder, fear, and imagination; that to imagine a comics history without Action Comics, Zap Comix, 2000AD, Taboo, or PEP -not to mention the mammoth manga collections- is impossible. The horror anthology is possibly the only survivor of the format to not only persist, but to be as acclaimed an influence as the superhero genre. (Somewhere, there is an alternate Earth where instead of Marvel and DC Comics, Archie and EC are the top publishers and I wonder about that world sometimes.)
Despite this, anthologies and horror are still tricky games to play in the comics market. Much of the power of horror comes from being able to control the reader’s experience, and the format of comics makes it much harder to make the tricks and techniques of prose and film work effectively. Comic anthologies suffer from the same problem all anthologies suffer from: it’s a mixed bag. You may pick one up and have have the misfortune of not finding a single story to justify the cost. Conversely, sometimes a single story can justify the whole experience if it’s good enough.
All of this considered, J.N. Williamson’s Illustrated Masques does a damn good job of contending with the problems set against it. A visual continuation of the popular and influential series of horror anthologies edited by the late Williamson, the book– originally published as two perfect bound collections in the early nineties– is a remarkably solid blend of talent from contemporary American horror. Edited by David Campiti and Mort Castle, (the latter of whom also contributes two stories and is the only living author to have been printed in every volume of the series,) the book features stories of urban darkness by such standouts as F. Paul Wilson, Robert R. McCammon, and some guy from Maine called Steve King. Horrorist-turned-magical-realist Clive Barker contributes a spot illustration, as do Andy B. Clarkson, Cristina de Lara Stockler, and several others. It’s a cornucopia of modern fear that invokes the production values of Epic Comics adaptations of Clive Barker’s stories, Tapping the Vein.
These are not “dark fantasy” stories, make no mistake. The intent behind this book is to disturb you, to leave something burrowing into your brain and laying eggs behind your eyes; and although horror reads differently with each reader, it can’t be denied that these are well written stories making a genuine effort to push buttons. In these stories, children are abducted by sweet talking child traffickers, a hold-up man lays dying in a hospital bed, and a newsreaders face starts to become putty. These aren’t the plots, these are the opening scenes. Where these stories end up is an entirely different matter, and the path to get there is littered with blood, shotgun shells, and lies. Anderson’s “Better Than One” gives a very EC-style nervous breakdown story with a Basil Wolverton twist. Not surprising, given his experience as a writer, editor, and teacher of comics; Castle and Evan’s “If You Take My Hand, My Son” uses the comic form to every advantage from the texture and color of the art to the mechanics of turning the page.
As a coda and tribute to Williamson’s long running series (published from 1984 to 2006), J. N. Williamson’s Illustrated Masques is a fine salutation. If this should become a continuation in graphic form, it’s off to a solid start.
J. N. Williamson’s Illustrated Masques</u> is a full-color 112-page limited edition hardcover from Gauntlet Press for $50
Greg Baldino lives and writes in Chicago. This is normally the part in his bio where he writes something clever, but a spider just ran across the keyboard and it’s given him the willies. Master of fright, he is not. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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