Grey Morality in Black and White: Guy Davis’ The Marquis
The Marquis: Inferno TPB
Written, Drawn, and Lettered by: Guy Davis
Colored by: Dave Stewart
Dark Horse Books (originally Oni Press), 2009
I love horror films in black and white. Directors like Argento and Raimi can use colour masterfully, and Hammer Horror wouldn’t be what it is without buckets of too-bright red blood. Even so, early black and white horror stories are some of the most effectively atmospheric. Look no further than silent Expressionist horror films to see how effectively black and white film can evoke fear, loneliness, depression, and all without the use of sound. Horror films from the ‘70s and ‘80s have some of the most memorable film scores in history, but to me there’s something eerier about The Monster entering the room in perfect silence in James Whale’s Frankenstein. These films often rely on suggestion, knowing that your expectation and dread can be so much more effective than the eventual reveal.
Guy Davis set out to evoke early horror classics with 1997 comic The Marquis. The art, in greyscale, is entirely without sound effects to make the comic feel “like an old black-and-white silent film.” It gives the effect of sound deadened by a snow-covered landscape, where sins can be committed in quiet obscurity. That sense of the hostility lurking behind a normal facade is integral to The Marquis, a comic examining the intertwined (and sometimes hard to differentiate) natures of good and evil. While the symbolism and language is clearly rooted in Christianity, Davis is careful not to engage with actual theology or even a real location–he’s not questioning a particular faith or institution, even while he paints a damning picture of the extremes people can be pushed to in the name of faith.
Two characters are at the center of The Marquis, including Vol de Galle, who is given the ability to see demons, and General Herzoge, an army leader in the fictional 18th century French city of Venisalle. As the eponymous Marquis, De Galle is charged with tracking down demons who have escaped from Hell and possess human hosts to stay in the world of the living. He is ideal for this role, both because of his religious fervor and for his past as an Inquisitor, when he was tasked with rooting out the sinful and faithless. He is no stranger to taking human lives to save their souls. To everyone else, though, his victims are completely human, and his crimes catch the attention of Herzoge, an aging soldier whose faith is questioned by his superior, the Grand Inquisitor Morsea. Herzoge is not convinced, as Morsea is, that a demon is responsible for the violent murders in Venisalle, secretly believing that they, like all crimes, are being committed by a regular human being. As the body count rises, the reader will likely question whether Herzoge or Morsea is closer to the truth. Can De Galle truly see demons, or has he convinced himself of this in order to prove his devotion to his favored Saint, who descended into Hell to rescue infant Jesus? Unlike in Sub-Mariner: The Depths, that answer isn’t left murky for long, and De Galle learns that as the Marquis, he is not a servant of Heaven, but of Hell.
Herzoge and De Galle both believe in serving their faith and have worked to support religious rule in Venisalle. A former Inquisitor for the church-state, De Galle is confident in his beliefs about good and evil. When he is granted the power to identify and destroy devils hiding in the city, he never questions his worthiness of these gifts or that they could come from anywhere but Heaven. Rather than experiencing a Fall as the series progresses, he learns that he has already Fallen and must continue to do the work for Hell that he believed he had been doing for Heaven. He meets demons who beg for their lives and do no harm and is forced to kill the entirely-human soldiers who try to stand between him and his prey. As a result, the follow-ups to the original The Marquis mini-series show a man who has become hardened and cynical. “I begin to find contempt for the living and pity for the sinful,” he remarks, sinking deeper into misanthropy as the differences between humanity and demonic become increasingly unclear.
Herzoge, however, begins a place of cynicism and doubt. He works closely with Grand Inquisitor Morsea who blames all crime on demonic influence and will torture witnesses to corroborate his belief, if necessary. Morsea clearly trusts Herzoge, in general, but questions Herzoge’s faith based on his insistence that The Marquis’ murders could be committed without the influence of Hell. Herzoge never sways from believing (at least, in private) that The Marquis must be human, but as more people die, The Marquis’ humanity becomes increasingly disturbing.
While both De Galle and Herzoge believe they are doing the work of an objective good, Davis emphasizes their differences through their contrasting (but complementary) character designs. It’s tempting, in a comic that is so concerned with religious morality, to classify one as good and one as evil, but their relationship (to each other and to their religion) is more complex. The Marquis dresses entirely in black, with a long nose, and a sharp, triangular hat. De Galle’s facial features match his mask, with a prominent nose and sunken cheeks. Conversely, Herzoge dresses all in white; he’s covered in intricate embroidery and sashes with heavy detailing that stands out next to The Marquis’ simple black cloak. His face and body, even his hat, are square and boxy, which lends itself well to expressions of world-weariness and quiet frustration, like he’s being crushed by the weight of the world. Their contrasting designs are an effective means of contrasting their parallel crises of faith in which one is focused on Earth while the other must contend with Hell.
When De Galle descends to Hell, the black-and-white comic is briefly overtaken by fiery hues provided by Dave Stewart. Contrasting the snowy night scenes of the rest of the comic, Hell seems brighter, warmer, and louder with Stewart’s intense palette. Limited to shades of yellow and orange, the landscape in Hell is a surreal and visceral mockery of the lavishness of 18th-century Venisalle, with similar towering architecture, but made of what looks disturbingly like living flesh. The demons, in the same feverish colours as the landscape, mirror the masks worn by the city’s inhabitants.
Davis’ skill as a monster designer–evident in much of his work, from B.P.R.D. to concept designs for Pacific Rim–is on in full-force throughout the series, but is best showcased in the sequence in Hell. Davis’ scratchy linework lends itself well to gritty, grimy textures, which he applies in this comic to the worlds of the living and the dead. Monster fans will love Davis’ sketchbook in the The Marquis: Inferno trade, where we goes into detail about his design motivations. Davis notes he wanted to avoid traditional demon elements like “horned satyrs, bat wings,” and instead he used a lot of “tentacles, teeth, bones, and flesh” and doesn’t leave much for the imagination. He doesn’t believe demons would have any sense of modesty. The demons and terrain are repulsive, but aren’t too far removed from the debauched opulence of the living world under Davis’ pen. The living and the damned are brought even closer together when the possessed, despite bodies horribly warped by demon spirits, are barely distinguishable from regular humans.
Like his subjects, the Devil himself (called the “Lord des Diables”) confronts De Galle with scornful mimicry, in a wonderfully disgusting character design, assuming the mocking shape of The Marquis. Initially in the form of a monstrous horse, a mask like The Marquis’ speaks to De Galle from the horse’s ass; its many tentacle tails form his hat, and the horse’s lower legs become arms (in his sketchbook, Davis also labels the “balls ascot”). De Galle, who remains in black and white while the scene around him turns to color, is forced to confront his monstrous mirror image while his worldview is shattered.
Davis is content to let his detailed art do the talking in some sequences (like a page showing Herzoge, surrounded by human corpses, killed only for getting in The Marquis’ way), but the Devil has much to say in his confrontation scene, to the point that it’s a bit overwritten. But it’s easy to see why; the comic’s already-complex worldview becomes even murkier. The Lord des Diables asks De Galle, “Which is more of a sin? To aid the Devil in what you know is right…or ignore all and simply cling to your faith, damning the living along with yourself?” The comic doesn’t have an answer; most of the demons are malicious, but the human beings aren’t exactly better. The Ministry sees itself as the force for good, but they regularly engage in torture when people don’t act or say what the Ministry wants. Heaven itself is absent from the comic, and is only represented through an impassive statue of a saint, so there’s no unambiguous voice for Good. The Devil tells De Galle that the “Ministry has done much to bring the faiths of saint and devil closer together, and perhaps in the end they need not be so different.” De Galle faces a choice: to continue to seek out devils and return them to Hell, or to damn the living by allowing the demons to run loose. Ultimately he decides to do what he’s spent his adult life doing, only now in the name of the Lord des Diables instead of Heaven or the Ministry, accepting that he needs the help of Hell to do what he believed to be Heaven’s work. He understands the world as it is, but his rigid morality has only shifted, not changed, as we see when he remains entirely black and white. When he returns to the real world, his black costume has taken on new significance, as he’s accepted The Marquis’ role as a baron of Hell.
The characters of The Marquis believe in objective right and wrong, and those who sin are strongly punished. And yet, Davis makes it clear that no one in this comic is truly innocent; even weary Herzoge, who seeks a man for crimes he’s told were committed by a demon, has spent his career serving the corrupt Ministry. In the first issue, naive Vol de Galle is disturbed when he discovers that regular “Confessionals” are not places to be absolved from sin, but little more than extravagant orgies. When he is tasked with returning rogue devils to Hell, he never questions where the power came from or his worthiness for the role, believing firmly in his inherent goodness. It would be easy to believe he were right, if all demons were as malicious as the one in the “Sin of One” oneshot, who regularly kills his human hosts to escape The Marquis. But even this is complicated from the beginning, when De Galle receives pistols along with his powers, for killing the human aspect before he can destroy the demon. When a demon flees its host body before it can die, De Galle leaves an ordinary man to burn to death. He also ignores appeals for mercy, as in the case of a demon whose sole interest seems to be reading. The demon is found alone in a library, and pleads: “I only wish to hear his stories…I have truly repented…I seek no devilment to him or you, lord.”
While we may have sympathy for this cute, bookish demon, Davis maintains the grotesque effect of demons on the human body, twisting and contorting hosts into inhuman shapes. Yet, Davis also connects the designs of human masks for The Confessional to the demons De Galle meets in Hell, leaving readers to question where the division between human and demon really lies. When De Galle meets the man who had held his Hellish post 200 before, called “La Misere,” he sees the toll of his work. La Misere, now little more than a walking skeleton, wanders the world carrying the souls he had slain beneath his ribcage. This nightmare fuel shows that human sin can warp the body as badly as demonic possession in this comic.
The worldview of The Marquis is complicated, pessimistic, and thorny; it doesn’t offer easy answers. Davis’ meticulous design at every stage of the art contributes to a grey, grimy world that only encourages further ambiguity. In his sketchbook, Davis notes that he applied shading film straight to the line art for toning, sometimes overlaying them for texture, creating highlights with white ink or “by scraping off the dots with an X-acto blade. And it was as time consuming and maddening as it sounds.” Humans and demons are linked through similar dirty, gritty hatching and designs with no interest in the idealized human bodies and faces favored by many comics artists. The world of this comic is Fallen and depraved, like the Noir films that Davis evokes with cynical characters, heavy shadows, and dramatic contrasts. Human and demon characters alike spend much of the comic discussing philosophy and questions of good and evil, but–like in a silent film–the visuals alone could communicate almost everything this comic wants to say.