Thee Comic Column #92: Kelley Jones’ The Hammer

The Hammer 2Recently I found myself waxing philosophical about horror. Horror as a frame of mind, an emotion and subsequently horror as a genre: a form of art that, when you reach back past the soma-ridden exteriors of our gadgety, distraction-obsessed world, you inevitably find as a testament to our very existence. An existence that proves that all those distractions we so continually improve, update and rely on are actually serve a very important purpose.

Our toys and technology distract us from the horrors at the very heart of our existence.

I don’t want to get too heavy or maudlin, but when you really stop to pay attention for a few moments you see that in reality we live in a swirling void of chaos that our parameters and delineations really only just barely keep inline. If you’ve ever had a moment of pure, unfiltered horror in your life, whether at the sudden and extreme loss of a loved one, an incident of violence perpetrated against you or just an encounter with something so strange and beyond your ability to reference or understand in the overall gestalt we’ve tried to lay down as part of our ‘definition’ of reality, then you might know what I’m talking about. And you also might have acquired a taste for horror as a genre, a theme for art or perhaps even as a color to add to your own palette. Horror is popular with the world today because as a sensation or emotion we know, deep down, it is always just around the corner from us. What better way then to attempt to prepare ourselves for the inevitable than by ingesting it as narrative? And that is exactly what we do, whether it’s by viewing the 3 Stooges, blood-soaked slapstick of Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead2, reading Stephen King’s chilling novel Pet Semetery or listening to the disturbing, acid-laced visions of Godflesh’s seminal work Streetcleaner, horror and the dark-visions of its creators and purveyors is something that many of us very much enjoy, because it puts us in touch with that unknown fate, that outer dark that looms just beyond our perception, stalking us until the day that we too close our eyes on this plane for whatever does – or doesn’t – come next. Some of us will go peacefully, perhaps in our sleep. Some will die violently, by accident or another’s hand. Some may find… something else.

That something else is where, for my money, a lot of the best horror lies. In recent years I’ve grown increasingly uncomfortable with violence in art and media when the depiction centers on violence perpetrated by one person against another. Take for example Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs. The film is absolutely brilliant and, in a series of stages that eludes the viewer’s initial expectations and assumptions based on information slowly doled out by the narrative, horrific almost beyond belief. However, despite Martyrs being one of the best films I’ve seen in years, I will most likely never revisit it. Or at least not in the way I do other horror art. The evil that men and women do to one another is so prevalent around us in daily life that I have an increasingly difficult time escaping into it with art. No, for me, that Outer Dark is the place where my favorite horror lives. There is such an abundance of wonderful prose that plays in this arena: Lovecraft, Chambers and King just to name a few of a fairly sizable list. And of course there’s a near limitless amount of cinema that traffics in fantastical, weird or speculatory horror, and while admittedly not all of it good, some of it is amazing.

But what of comics? Well, yes there is a long running though arguably intermittent corner of the comics medium that deals with horror. And today I’d like to talk about one of the best – Kelley Jones’ The Hammer.

CAM00892I recently did something of an inventory on my comics and in one of my many long boxes I found the first two Hammer mini series published by Dark Horse Comics, The Hammer (1-4, 1997) and The Hammer: The Outsider (1-3, 1999). The Hammer and Kelley Jones in general had fallen off my radar for years, but yet just as when I first saw them on the stands at Amazing Fantasy in 1997, Kelly Jones’ incredibly dark and often indescribable art called to me again from the covers of this series and it was with a long-forgotten fervor that I devoured the story of Professor Wilcox as he gives up his humanity to a bizarre alien growth that fastens itself to his head and leads him on a quest against the eldritch forces attempting to reclaim the world of man as their own. There’s serious ties to the Weird Fiction tradition and Lovecraft especially, but Mr. Jones uses the introduction of his half-warrior, half-shaman protagonist to cut his own swathe through these traditions, carving out his own niche as opposed to simply playing with these ages-old archetypes.

In The Hammer 1-4 supernatural horror is prevalent, however Jones does a fantastic job bridging the gap between this supernatural, Lovecraftian madness and the gritty slasher horror of 1970’s cult cinema a la Lucio Fulci and Dario Argento. The opening of issue #1 of the series juxtaposes several instances of cosmic, shamanic horror with the classic 70’s cinema set-up of two teens looking for a place to screw around and ending up chum in the water. Only here its not a gore-crazed, black-gloved maniac – again that would be tiresome to my recent sensitivities. Instead it’s the eventual big bad, a Puritan-era witch resurrected as a new age author who spreads the evil of the Old Ones via her cutthroat self-help philosophies that have climbed to the top of the best-sellers list.

Sound insane? It is. Sound scary? It is. There are so many through-lines that Jones finds between various elements of horror that he manages to bring a lot of the over-used tropes of classic horror literature and cinema into something that, accented by his absolutely haunting art, really gets under the reader’s skin in a way not a lot of other horror comics can. And while reading this series again I didn’t necessarily find myself starting at noises in the other room or the occasional titterings at the window, I definitely retired from the story feeling renewed in the idea that as I proceed from this point, I really should whistle on my way past the graveyard and watch where I go sticking my nose. Somethings are just best left unknown.

Kelley Jones’ The Hammer is a visceral, cerebral romp through many of seemingly disparate kinds of horror. It is also a series that simply must be read to be understood. I do not think my initial encounter with The Hammer upon its release – when I was a much younger man – was nearly as involved as this current reading was. Part of this is no doubt because, while at the time of that initial reading I definitely had some chops with my Lovecraft, I did not yet know enough about horror as an over-arching concept in all its glorious incarnations. This is an important element needed to fully appreciate just how accomplished Mr. Jones’ story and characters are. That has definitely changed for me, as I have spent the last thirteen years or so very much immersed in horror, chewing through as much of the ‘good’ and historical stuff as I can manage time for, while at the same time attempting to juxtapose what I learn in this life with a desire to understand my fascination with these often messy and disturbing genres and themes. The result has been, I think, a beginning at truly understanding what the things that go bump – or stab – in the night really mean to the members of our species that like me, love the hell out of being scared.

Even if only for a little while.

……………………..

Can’t find a comic shop? You can always use old reliable Comic Shop Locator at 1-800-COMIC-BOOK. Or you can take some of my recommendations. If you live in the greater Chicagoland area I recommend any of the wonderful four locations of Amazing Fantasy Books. In Los Angeles it’s The Comic Bug. Las Vegas it’s Alternate Reality Comics. San Francisco? Try the Isotope Comic Lounge and if you happen to venture a little further North I’d say you have to visit The Escapist Comic Book Store in Berkley (with the wonderful Dark Carnival Books next door and owned by the same folks). Read on!!!

 

Shawn C Baker

Shawn C Baker

Shawn lives in Los Angeles where he co-hosts Drinking w/ Comics, writes screenplays and fiction and has been known to drink quite a bit of beer. Good beer.

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