Monday, January 18, 2016

The Problem With Broodhollow

I must begin by saying that I am a big fan of Kris Straub and the work he's done over the years. I was (am!) a fan of Checkerboard Nightmare. From some of his writings, Straub gives the impression that he finds his earlier work lacking in some regards. It makes sense; we all look back on the things done and said in our youth and find some of them that we would do or say differently in retrospect. It's only to be expected. Regardless of how CN might be improved, however, it was a clever, creative strip.

Time Friends was an interesting idea that played with a form of crowdsourcing the writing of the comic. I can't find anywhere online that it's been archived, but there are odd strips available here and there around the web.

F Chords was an interesting departure from his surreal comics that preceded it by remaining almost exclusively in the realm of the mundane world. It was short-lived and I don't know that it really resonated with Straub (hah!), but I wouldn't be sorry to see him pick that thread up again in the future.

Starslip Crisis was the next real, long-term strip after his initial work on CN, and it was an amazing work. Straub ties together a solid narrative arc along with jokes in just about every strip. He deftly parodied some SF conventions while still creating original and interesting stories and characters of his own. But most impressive of all was the ending of the strip. Not only was it all tied together neatly, but it was moving as well. Most impressive of all, really, was the fact that Straub brought the strip to an end at all.

With CN this makes two narrative (or semi-narrative) strips that Straub brought to a conclusion and ended. I'm not the most widely read person as regards comics, but this sort of thing is very, very rare in my experience.

After bringing Starslip to a close Straub moved into writing his current narrative strip, Broodhollow. This strip is set in a small West Virginia town in the 1930s. (The precise year is a bit vague for storytelling purposes.) The tale is the adventures of Wadsworth Zane, a down-on-his-luck encyclopedia salesman who comes to town to collect an inheritance from his "second grand, half-uncle, once removed". Zane is already a very superstitious person who believes in the existence of a "Pattern" which can only be placated to avoid disaster, but never to his benefit.

After arriving in town, the slow building of supernatural events plays on his existing beliefs and drives Zane into full on pathological superstition. The events are real, but how well does Zane understand them and are they related to his superstitions? The comic is a masterwork that explores memory, fear, community, and still manages to be humorous.

Despite this greatness (and it is great), there is a serious flaw in the story that seriously compromises it. It is an all-too-common problem with many works of popular fiction regardless of medium and genre. In this case, it beggars belief that a small town in rural West Virginia in the 1930s would fail to have any semblance of religion whatsoever.

This isn't to say that Straub has to include religion or that it needs to be part of the story. But in a time and place where it would be expected to exist, there needs to be some explanation for its absence if it isn't going to figure. Why is there no religion in this town?

The story introduces any number of prominent citizens; doctors, businessmen, wealthy citizens, the mayor, the chief of police and others, but never a clergyman or a minister. Not even at a funeral does any sort of religious figure appear. There is no church, no cemetery, only a secular graveyard. And in that graveyard there are no crosses; only headstones.

I'm open to the idea that Straub will make the absence, this lack, part of the tale, but more than two years in he should have at least hinted at that reason already. Instead it looks like that a secular worldview has blinded him to the reality of the time and place he has set his tale.