Disclaimer: This review is based on a review copy provided by the cartoonist.
Short horror fiction has perhaps the widest reach of all genres. Campfires, midnight radio, parody advertisements, pulp fiction for eight-year-olds, and anthology television all boast a firm ground in the genre-format. Readers and viewers alike love the twist in the tale that so often elevate (or puncture) the short, i.e. limited, story. Send it off with a bang, and they’ll remember your craft, even if they only gave you five minutes.
And comics? Short stories are perfect for self-publishing, for hobbyist introduction efforts, and (as readers) for brief reads before bedtime. Want horror short comics? Sean Poppe has some for you. Yes, they have twists. But only sort of.
Sean Poppe Presents Two Eerie Tales (2014) features (yes) two tales. One is about a family visiting a funfair, and the other is about a “wretched crow” who yearns to be human. They end badly, but it’s funny. It’s not joke funny, but ironically non-ironic, almost, turning to the audience and shrugging bony shoulders at the absurdity of tragedy. You know how truth is allegedly stranger than fiction? What if “truth” also makes fiction funnier.
Poppe’s funfair-visiting family consists of a mother, a father, and two teen (tween?) boys. The boys are badly behaved and disrespectful–mean little eyes and entitled schoolboy teeth and cheeks. They ditch their parents to bully nerds, drop rubbish, and sneak about where they shouldn’t. And, oh, who’d have thought. They meet a spectre, who offers to show them some “real fun.” But the fun is too scary! Oh no! The boys want to leave!
Claire Napier: The way what you present as a “twist” moment is actually more often a sort of ironically obvious “and then … they died!!!” is really funny to me. A twist subversion? It reminds me of the kitsch, trollish worst-ending storytelling of the 1991 TV show Monsters, for example. Are there any forbears you’d credit with inspiring your enjoyment of this type of bad end? Is it a response to any trends you sensed “in comics?”
Sean Poppe: The first inspiration that comes to mind is Goosebumps. I liked quite a few of them in fifth grade and known for that kind of twisty/cliffhanger ending. Plus the goopy monsters on the cover always stuck with me, too. I’d like to say I’m aware enough of current trends to consider it a reaction or critique, but honestly I think it’s my own lack of subtlety.
CN: I would consider that’s very fine pedigree, actually; there’s nothing better than Goosebumps, at the time Goosebumps is right. What were your favourites, or do any sequences especially stick with you?
SP: Oh gosh! No, haha. I have a very poor memory of them and haven’t read any recently, and what memories I have may be cross-contaminated with the live-action show Are You Afraid of the Dark, and possibly even Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. Was it common for kids to read so many spooky stories? A lot of them seemed so essential when I was that age. I just loved the build up between chapters [in Goosebumps] being so dramatic, and then that sharp drop off. Like, “the horrible shadowy figure emerged from the darkness! ‘Oh hi Patrick.’”
The joke becomes the narrative’s unflinching return to the parents, frantic to find their children. This is real life, right? Children lost at a funfair? Police revealing they’re aware that there are “some” children trapped–not ours, surely, no, please–and there’s a deadly gas leak? This is terrible. It really happens, in essence. But we were cheering for these rude kids to get stuck forever in hell–what the fuck are we doing having fun imagining kids being eaten by demons anyway? That’s actually really sad. That would be really sad, if it were to happen. The perversity of what exactly constitutes the “horror” component of the story is clever, and that makes it funny. Poppe bucks the rules–rule breaking is fun to watch.
SP: The very first comic I ever made was in fifth grade that was a retelling of Jurassic Park, but if our fifth grade class went. Honestly, a gag in it I still think about to this day; when they all pull up and see the dinosaur for the first time, in my comic the dinosaur was a huge rubber dinosaur patched together like a parade balloon held aloft with helicopters, and all the characters are excited to actually see a real life dinosaur.
The turning point for me, though I think, was when I drew Tapeworm Man in sixth grade, essentially a super-hero story, but all set on the back of a dog and all the characters are gross bugs. I got a lot of earnest encouragement from my sixth grade teacher, and without her, I may not have even pursued comics at all, actually.
Professionally, my first published work was a in a rock and roll themed anthology co-curated by Kevin Cannon, one of my very favorite working cartoonists, followed by a smattering of other anthologies, and a regular appearance in the Boo! Halloween Anthology put out by Monkey Brain Comics. I’ve also self-published a few mini-comics, which are mostly collections of my shorts I’ve put online.
The story of the wretched crow is much shorter, and though it’s similarly devoted to negativity, it has a more classic fairy tale feeling. A crow wants to become a man, he achieves semi-humanity, and is worshiped as a god, but treats his human subjects so poorly they devolve into wretched crows. Presumably, things continue cyclically. The joy of this story is the adjective-crammed prose and lyricism, the rhythm of the captioning. It reads like a Tenacious D song.
This year’s Hexer is a more straightforward horror tale; Poppe’s contributions to Boo! Halloween Anthologies can be found on Comixology.