Defying description as non-chalantly as it does logic and reason, Chicago-based cartoonist Gabriel Howell’s physically impressive (heavy construction-type paper; perfect binding; French-folded, oversized pages) 2018 self-published comic Father is one of those works that bypasses the conscious mind and goes right for the id — with a fucking scalpel. It doesn’t “leave a mark” so much as it carves one in, and you’re not going to emerge out the other side the same person as when you opened it up.
If that description scares you, it probably should — this is a horror comic, after all, and while its surface-level terrors are easy enough to spot and fit roughly into the loose category of “biological horror,” its conceptual terrors are more oblique, more unsettling, and more likely to stay put in your newly-scarred mind. This is a book that gets its hooks in you — and then pulls on them for days, weeks, maybe even years.
Howell’s world is one of physically grotesque figures rendered in detail so painstaking that they fall somewhere between the work of Charles Burns and Tim Lane, and they operate not so much in front of or against, but in constant danger of being subsumed by, rich, deep, inky, near-obsidian black backgrounds, the images being just familiar enough to evoke a sense of deja vu while simultaneously feeling well, truly, and frighteningly alien. That’s where this book’s true power lies, you see — it’s both easy and impossible to relate to, both intimate and coolly detached, both simple enough to follow and dense to the point of being impenetrable.
Rather like a dream, I suppose — or, more precisely, like a nightmare.
A nameless man’s nameless wife has just given birth to their firstborn, apparently satisfying his disturbingly eroticized need to procreate, but she can’t conceive and has never even been pregnant. No big deal, though — a hole in the ground leads to a secret-but-accessible world where he discovers he has progeny numbering, it seems, in the hundreds — only he doesn’t . Never has. Never will. Unless he really does?
Howell is brewing one of the more disturbing psycho-sexual concoctions I’ve ever come across here, a highly combustible mix of “breeder” fetishism; of fear of children as our biological replacements; of alienation from one’s body, one’s basic human needs, and one’s desires; of deep-seated misogyny; and of gender dysphoria that maybe, on the margins, evokes some of the same feelings one would get reading the darkest works of the late, great Jeff/Jessica/Jess Johnson. Yet it inhabits an expansive-but-claustrophobic netherworld all its own, one where spaces and environments reflect the inner turmoil and deep psychological malaise of the people who populate them. It’s inescapable, this sense of foreboding, of all being lost — of the abyss gazing also, and quite hungrily, at that.
There are some strange foibles to be found within these pages — perhaps-intentional misspellings, curious syntax and the like, but they don’t provide any sort of welcome relief from the spell being so silently-yet-ferociously cast. From page first to page last, Howell offers no chance of escape, and that sensation persists long after. I’d be a fool to recommend Father as a “must-buy” to everyone — not least because of its hefty $20 asking price — but if you’re one of those readers who values experiences that challenge your perceptions of, quite literally, everything? This isn’t just a book for you — this is the book for you.
I still can’t get it out of my head, and have resigned myself to the fact that I probably never will.
You can order Father from Domino Books at http://dominobooks.org/father.html
Gabriel Howell’s Storenvy site is at http://gabrielhowell.storenvy.com/
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