Grotesque, Anxious and Delightful: A Review of The Wicked and the Tired
Sheika Lugtu (editor), Jenna Kang (assistant editor), Connie Chu (cover art),
A. Cris Valles, Daimon Hampton, Rivven Prink, Gabriel Mason, Gabi Mendez, Sheika Lugtu, Yewon Kwon, Woodbury Rand (Contributors)
Cow House Press
One of my favorite things about Chicago’s independent comics scene is that it’s filled with people who are downright inspiring, people like artist Sheika Lugtu. Last year, Lugtu hosted 24 Hour Comics Day, an event during which artists try to make 24 pages in 24 hours. The event inspired Lugtu not only to collect an anthology, but to start Cow House Press which, according to its website, “publishes hoof-made books, comics and, zines by emerging artists.” Lugtu is part of a comics community full of incredible QT and/or POC artists, people whose talent often goes unnoticed by a discriminatory publishing industry. Cow House Press helps remedy this with their first publication, the horror anthology The Wicked and The Tired.
The Wicked and the Tired has a welcoming and thoughtful structure. Illustrations by Woodbury Rand bookend the anthology, and depict artists peacefully plugging away at their work during 24 Hour Comics Day, as well as an empty, serene workspace. After each story ends, the reader flips to a one-page illustration by a different artist that serves as a palate cleanser. Then, an all-black title page with white font introduces the next story and artist, allowing the reader to take a breath before diving in. I would have liked a clearer break between Gabe Howell’s two stories – there’s an illustration by Howell of a dog with a spiked muzzle, and on the first read-through I didn’t realize it was a break until I got into the second comic – but otherwise the book is incredibly well-paced, and gives each story space to breathe and function as it’s own piece.
Most of the stories were created during the 24 hour art party, so they sometimes jump in or out at strange points. However, each story has a different strength and allure. Gabi Mendez’s comic, “Witching Hour,” starts with a teen falling off their bike, down a hill and into another teen – only to discover that they already know each other, and have a complicated history. It’s a jarring opening, but the two protagonists – one magic, one not – quickly pulled me in, and left me wanting more of their stories.
Lugtu’s own piece at the end of the book, “Theodore’s Day Out,” also ends rather abruptly and leaves the reader wanting more. (The Theodore series, “Theodore’s Day Out” and “Happy Birthday Theodore,” are available separately, and in full color.) It’s the most grotesque comic in the anthology, because it features a child who vomits out words rather than speaking them. All the other characters in the story are animal or non-human, and they have hilariously banal names – Derek, Joan, etc – but Lugtu walks the line between humor and horror with ease. If you’re easily squicked out you might not love this one, but as a lover of grotesque horror movies, I was completely charmed by this disgusting child who wanders a desolate, monster-filled landscape in search of potentially even grosser parents.
Between these two stories – one relatively optimistic, one delightfully yucky – are three more anxious comics; “Halovita” by Yewon Kwon, and “I Am Enduring the Miserable Inevitable” and “Internet Crush” by Gabe Howell. Kwon’s story has a more abstract style, with panels overlaid on backgrounds of watchful eyes and weeping figures, but the art is all emotion. Of all the comics in the anthology it is most obviously about internal horror, but rather than depicting a cliché downward spiral, Kwon gives the reader a deeply intimate and emotionally complex one that asks questions about medication and professional care versus self care.
Howell’s two comics are also narrated by unnamed protagonists, but in very different situations. The first is a short introspective piece that seems to take place during the final moments of someone being either being sacrificed by a cult or engaging in ritual suicide, and the second is about a morally ambiguous person with an internet crush. There is a stalkerish air to their focus on their crush’s social media; I’ve never read an “LOL” that was quite so sinister. This protagonist also seems socially anxious, but the images of kinky sex play in the comic push the reader to question whether this is just a person nervous to reveal their kink, or someone with more nefarious motives. Howell’s lettering is a bit hard to read but highly affecting; in the first story it communicates the narrator’s near-death nerves, and in the second the anxiety of an infatuated maybe-stalker. Howell’s work is a great lesson in how lettering can make or break the atmosphere of a story.
If I had to sum up The Wicked and The Tired in one word, I could only offer: exciting. Yes, of course horror is exciting, but it’s also a first offering from a press that is invested in a very talented set of creators. Cow House Press’ first book is full of stories and individual illustrations that cover a variety of tones – Rivven Prink contributed well-inked, ominous moths, whereas A. Cris Valles and Daimon Hampton contributed pieces that are respectively joyful and delightfully angsty – that show off their horror chops, but also hint at the range of which they are capable. This anthology does just what I want all anthologies to do — it left me wanting more.