The Elwich Horror : Jay Stephens’ “Dwellings”

At first glance, there’s something inherently “been there, done that” about Jay Stephens’ new ongoing series Dwellings — after all, we’re talking about what would appear to be a send-up/pastiche of old-school Harvey Comics printed on pre-yellowed newsprint complete with fake ads and the like — but no one in their right mind would argue that something having been done before necessarily precludes it from being done well and Stephens, to my knowledge, has never half-assed a project. I go back to the early ’90s with both this cartoonist and his publisher, Black Eye Books, so it’s certainly no stretch to say that there’s a bit of “rooting for the home team” happening here on my part, but even still — two issues into this entirely unexpected return for both, all I can say is that, initial impressions aside, this comic is so far surpassing not just my expectations for it, but even my hopes.

Admittedly, it took me a few pages to “buy in” to the idea of yet another “mature” comic done in an overtly “kids’ cartoon” style, but there’s more than a simple “piss-take,” as the Brits would say, happening here : indeed, once you come to grips with what Stephens is doing both in theory and practice with this comic, you really can’t see it being presented in any other way. The far-flung coincidences, high-flying absurdities, and frankly borderline-depraved levels of ultraviolence that are necessary to propel this horror/black comedy narrative forward simply wouldn’t work if Stephens “played it straight,” and his particular cartooning skill set is so well-suited to this kind of Bizarro-world incongruity between form and function, tone and temperament, that any other approach would feel as false as it would force.

Anyway, high-fallutin’ analysis of artistic imperatives aside, what you need to know is that there’s bad shit afoot in the fictitious (I’m assuming, at any rate) small town of Elwich, Ontario. The crows are out for blood, a local kid is happy to supply it for them, a newly-reinstated cop with a checkered past and a potentially itchy trigger finger is the only one wise to what’s happening, and a newly-arrived Harvard grad student seeking to study first-hand something called “foreign accent syndrome” (a genuine phenomenon whereby patients who’ve suffered head trauma of one form or another wake up with an accent they didn’t have previously) is about to bite off way more than she can chew in the “ancient evil” department. The elements of many a classic horror yarn are, then, present and accounted for, with a special emphasis on the age-old struggle between modern, rational thought and folkloric superstition.

The story is also loaded with the requisite twists, turns, and comeuppances that come part and parcel with this sort of thing, but Stephens’ choice to go with classic “funnybook” aesthetics has the net effect of rendering most of them surprising at the least, downright disarming at best, because let’s face it : having a bunch of bad stuff happen within the context of a stylistic environment where we’re used to nothing bad ever happening is one of the more fertile grounds for head-fuckery that there is — and this comic will fuck with your head.

It’ll also make you laugh — more often than not in spite of yourself — and will even impress you on occasion with its sheer ingenuity. I lost count of how many times I thought to myself “I really should’ve seen that coming” over the course of reading issues one and two, but the fact that I never did see those things I should have coming is testament to just how skillfully Stephens is playing his hand here. The old saying about the Devil’s greatest trick being convincing the world that he doesn’t exist comes to mind, because the only devil that ever existed in the sorts of comics Stephens is patterning the look of his book after was Hot Stuff, and he was one of the good guys — just like everybody else.
It’s fair to say that this, then, is a pretty damn disturbing comic, but not in a way that’s at all gratuitous or ill-considered — if all it were setting out to be was a spoof for its own sake, then that would be another matter, but Stephens is building a complex and immersive fictional world here that references many of the darker aspects of our own, while at the same time overtly wishing that the pre-packaged saccharine innocence so many of us grew up bombarded with could be true. I guess dreams really do die hard, after all — but nightmares? They go on forever.

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Issues one and two of Dwellings are available at the very appropriate price of $6.66 each from the Black Eye website at https://www.blackeye.ca/shop

Review wrist check – Cincinnati Watch Company “Cincinnatus Field” green dial model on bracelet.

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