Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Southern Gothic – James Pearson

Southern Gothic, it is like a barely tangible dark essence. A flavour that is subtle yet distinct. A spice that you can’t quite put your finger on but adds the zest to the gumbo.

Trying to define Southern Gothic as a genre is damn near impossible. Referring to it as an ingredient or undercurrent is far easier. You can sense the vibe as opposed to out-and-out acknowledging that you are consuming a Southern Gothic-stamped product. All part of the mystery and joy I say!

My first memorable brush with that Southern Gothic spice was as a kid reading the Classics Illustrated version of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. The sequence where Tom and Becky are on the run from Injun Joe in the dark labyrinth of caves always stuck with me. Considering that Twain was essentially writing a kid’s book, he definitely tapped into some extremely dark places. Shadows, bats, homicidal maniacs and yes…Murder. They all played a vital part in the otherwise innocent world that Tom Sawyer and Huck inhabited. The sun twinkled and sparkled off of the beautiful surface of the grand Mississippi whilst underneath twisted and squirmed a barely hidden grey undertow of menace and mystery. The essence of Southern Gothic.

And boy did that essence lend itself to the medium of sequential art.

Having been an avid and rabid “funny books” reader for the past thirty years, I have been a big fan of Southern Gothic flavoured comics. There is something about the snaking swamp tendrils and its inbred inhabitants that is at once repulsive and alluring. Maybe it is the juxtaposition of those primal elements set against the civilised culture of the Southern Gent and Lady sipping tea on the porch of their plantation in all their finery that strikes a chord.

Artists like Bernie Wrightson and Mike Ploog captured that spice in visual terms just perfectly. Get your hands on an old copy of DC’s Swamp Thing and see what I mean. Alan Moore’s scripts for later Swamp Thing stories further complicated matters by adding a psychedelic twist to proceedings. A good session reading Moore’s Eighties run on Swamp Thing should be a mandatory rite of passage for any aspiring comic book writer/illustrator.

As far as I am concerned Swamp Thing will always be the benchmark of Southern Gothic in comics, but there are some pretty notable more recent efforts. One example that comes to mind is Steve Niles’ atmospheric and excellent Freaks of the Heartland. Captures the mood and the balance between innocence and menace just right. Niles is a clever fellow, he even manages to inject a Southern Gothic twist into his frigid Alaska-set vampire epic 30 Days of Night. He just can’t help himself. That flavour has permeated itself in comics since the early days (have a nosey at some of the old EC Comics horror books to get a taste) and it stands testament to the strength of the ingredient that it still infuses itself onto the comic racks to this very day.

So where does Bayou Arcana fit in?

From all the press surrounding the project (unexpected but very welcome!), one would see this as the comics’ industry’s attempt at rebalancing a gender inequality that has existed for waaaay too long… and that is a big element at play here. Bayou Arcana was designed as a platform to showcase some of that underutilised talent, although that’s not to forget the excellent writing team behind the stories!

However, first and foremost, Bayou Arcana is an exercise in Southern Gothic. Magic swamps, Louisiana Gentry, renegade slaves, bayou princesses, nasty inbreds, voodoo, and One-Eyed Raccoons all feature. What I set out to do with Bayou Arcana was create a unique and brand-new universe for a bunch of writers and artists to play around in and expand (further volumes and spin-offs are already in the works!). It was never a conscious decision to set that playground in a Southern Gothic world. It just happened that way. The story of a group of escaped slaves finding shelter and a new life within a magical swamp that serves as their guardian from the evils of the outside world seemed like a great starting point to let loose all those talented bods involved on. And those talented bods have more than lived up to expectations.

What was unexpected, and maybe this has something to do with the mix of the creative teams, is that they have plumbed another Southern Gothic vein, one I haven’t spoken of yet. An element as vital and essential as all the dark things…

Romance.
More specifically: doomed romance.
Oh yes…In amongst all the gators, snakes, demons and gore there will be heartfelt tears.
And lots of them.

I am really looking forwards to our night celebrating the realms of Southern Gothic at Blackwell’s on the 8th of March. Can’t wait actually. Not only is it an opportunity to do the usual plugging of one’s book; it is an opportunity to explore and share a love of a literary flavour and spice that rarely gets the recognition or attention it deserves!

See all you Swamp Things on the night!

Jimmy Pearson

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Bayou Arcana: Songs of Loss and Redemption is released this May from Markosia.

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