“Yankee Doodle Strangler” : David G. Caldwell Whistles Past The Graveyard Of Half-Assed Comics

For the past several years, cartoonists such as Harry Nordlinger, Josh Simmons, Corinne Halbert, and Julia Gfrorer (to name just a handful) have been doing some incredibly provocative and effective horror work in the small press and self-publishing world, and you can add the name of Huntsville, Alabama’s David G. Caldwell to that list — in fact, you could have added it long time ago, as he’s been at it for a good few years now, as well. And maybe you did, if you’re wiser and generally more “up” on things than I am, but I’m just getting around to it now because, well, I just became aware of his work quite recently.

Still, now’s as good a time as any to check this guy’s stuff out, given that he’s just collected his long-running strip Yankee Doodle Strangler (originally serialized both digitally and in mini-comics form) in two different packages — an oversized magazine edition and a standard-sized comic book. Of the pair, I’d recommend going with the magazine, as it presents the art much closer to actual production size and the pages are laid out as originally intended, but the larger panels of the standard comic look nice, even if the six-panel grid of each page feels forced and compromises the fluidity of the storytelling. They’re both the same price, so that’s not an issue, but who are we kidding? The format of a publication matters, sure, but it’s hardly the pressing issue here.

To get to the heart of the matter, then, this is a really solid, well-drawn horror yarn that makes the most out of a deliberately absurd premise (spirit of dead revolutionary war soldier re-emerges in the Bicentennial year of 1976 and begins strangling nurses, until one of his would-be victims escapes his clutches and teams with a local librarian to discover the secret to stopping him), effectively sends up various “B”-movie tropes without being condescending, layers on the period-piece atmospherics without hammering readers over the head with them, and adheres to a thoroughly satisfying, if admittedly simple, story structure that neither takes itself too seriously nor steps over the line into outright self-parody. It’s an inherently self-aware work, sure, but it threads that final conceptual line between straight genre homage and spoof without resorting to the cheap and easy outs of irony for its own sake or “edgy” updating. It’s a comic that’s entirely comfortable in its own skin — even if it’s about a phantom.

Certainly the term “outlaw comic” is thrown around a lot these days, and this work fits that bill to a degree in terms of its mildly irreverent tone, but there’s nothing deliberately over the top on offer here, and Caldwell never compromises his commitment to craft for the sake of upping his book’s shock value or knocking you out with a particularly grotesque or deliberately tasteless image. His linework is crisp, his shading moody and evocative, and his figure drawing fundamentally solid, so he’s certainly got the skills to deliver the gory goods if he wanted to, but here’s the thing : he sublimates that desire to “go big” in favor of putting his talents to use for the sake of good, old-fashioned, visually fluid sequential storytelling.

Which doesn’t, of course, mean that his comic is without its flaws — particularly in terms of its rather “one-note” characterization and some rather predictable story “beats” — but as with any effort from a cartoonist still very much in the process of finding their “voice,” you take the good with the bad, and the “good” side of the ledger is significantly larger and longer than the “bad” in the case of this particular artist.
All quibbles aside, then, this is a remarkably strong piece of legitimately auteur comics work that will likely impress even those who have experienced its like before in a general sense and will see most of its twists and turns coming. Caldwell had produced a smart, idiosyncratic genre comic that will leave most readers — including, for the record, this critic — downright eager to see what he does next.

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Yankee Doodle Strangler is available for $10.00, either in magazine or stand-sized comic book format, from David G. Caldwell’s website at http://www.davidgcaldwell.com/

Also, this review — and all others around these parts — is “brought to you” by my Patreon site, where I serve up exclusive thrice-weekly rants and ramblings on the worlds of comics, films, television, literature, and politics for as little as a dollar a month. Subscribing is the best way to support my continuing work, so I’d be very appreciative if you’d take a moment to give it a look by directing your kind attention to https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

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