From the paneled pictures of your darkest dreams, this is Graphic. Every month, I’ll be telling you about the best horror in comic books, from the early days of EC Comics to the resurgence of the genre in today’s mainstream and indie publishers. So pull up your blanket, dear reader, switch on your flashlight, and turn the page…
There seem to be very few rules to making a grindhouse film. Want it to be a schlocky horror gore fest? Go for it. A nearly-nude action romp? Green light. A totally accurate historical tale? Just make sure there’s some blood. Besides their exploitative, hyper-violent nature and characteristically low budgets, grindhouse titles don’t abide by many filmmaking guidelines. Still, you have to admit, they’d all have to be movies to be considered grindhouse. Right?
Well, no. At least, that’s what Dark Horse Comics’ pulpy sleazefest Grindhouse: Doors Open at Midnight would imply. From 2014 to 2015, this over-the-top comic anthology brought the joy of grindhouse cinema to the comic book format. Eight stories were collected in four “Double Feature” trade paperbacks, with stories ranging from hockey players taking on demons to sexy adventurers traversing the stars. For the purposes of this article, we’re going to focus on Volume One, featuring the tantalizing double bill of Bee Vixens from Mars and Prison Ship Antares. So butter your popcorn, spike your Coke, and read on.
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Bee Vixens from Mars
Something sticky, sexy, and certainly sinister is going on in the rural American South. Folks are going wild for this year’s fresh honey, despite the fact that it’s made by massive, skull-emblazoned bees. As their craving for the sweet treat grows and their citizens begin to change into something inhuman, the citizens of this small community inch closer to ensuring not just their own doom, but that of the entire human race. That is, unless the badass, eyepatch-wearing, machete-wielding Deputy Garcia has her say. But can even she stand against the might of an alien threat who has made powerful enemies… out of her own townspeople?
Writing Bee Vixens from Mars (plus every other story in Grindhouse) is the brilliant Alex de Campi. If you’re a NOFS frequenter, you might recognize her name from the spotlight we did on another of her books, Archie vs. Predator II. De Campi’s writing showcases the enviable ability to take a ridiculous concept and immerse a reader in its reality, while keeping the characters and dialogue playful enough to make the comic fun. Bee Vixens from Mars is no exception.
On pencils for Bee Vixens from Mars is Chris Peterson, who absolutely nails the gratuity for which grindhouse is famous. Sex and violence are big in this comic, literally taking up entire splash pages. And the gore in this book is nothing less than inventive. From a headless, penisless body found in a field to a set of scattered alien guts that don’t even exist in reality, Peterson’s drawings earn him a place as the Tom Savini of the comic page. Colorist Nolan Woodard puts muscle on the bones that Peterson draws, with colors that not only drive home the gore, but give this story the grainy footage feel that’s such a standard for grindhouse art. It’s a formidable art duo featured in Bee Vixens from Mars, which hopefully will not be the last horror project on which they collaborate.
Prison Ship Antares
The citizens of Earth want a new home. The only problem is that the nearest inhabitable planet is lightyears away, meaning any potential explorers would have to spend their entire lives in a ship just to get there. No free individual would want that, so the US government has an idea: send prisoners. Now, the spaceship Antares carts a women’s prison deep into the vast reaches of outer space, giving them a new life whether they wanted it or not. However, the sadistic warden on the ship doesn’t believe the prisoners deserve a new life. In fact, she believes they deserve only punishment in the cruelest ways possible. And with an army of clone guards doing her bidding, she may just get her way.
Though there’s less of an outright protagonist than in Bee Vixens, de Campi manages to populate the Antares with full, lived-in characters. Their motives for revolting are varied; some fight for personal freedom, others for revenge, still others to protect their loved ones. Admittedly, the character of the warden is a little one-dimensional, but her sadistic torture and murder methods give the heroes a horrific, tangibly gruesome struggle to overcome.
Joining de Campi for this story is artist Simon Fraser. True to the genre, Fraser’s art also puts sex and violence first. However, Fraser is less focused on gore than Chris Peterson. Instead, his talent shines in the design of the Antares’s prisoners. Not only does this mix of races and body types make the story more visually interesting, it goes a long way in making the reader care about the crew. They feel like real people with real personalities, especially since they spend most of the time battling an army of exactly identical male clones. Combined with Victoria Lau and Gary Caldwell’s mood-setting colors, Fraser’s work provides a beating heart beneath Antares‘s scarred, grisly skin.
The biggest problem I had with Grindhouse is that there’s not more of it. Story by story, de Campi and crew do such a good job of capturing the titular genre’s low-budget feel to tell high-crazy tales. The fact that they didn’t get to continue that is a shame. Still, by just existing, Grindhouse proves that there are more comics to be done in this style, and perhaps more importantly, that genres of film are worth exploring in genres of comics. Fans of Frank Miller’s Sin City already know noir works in a comic, but what about others? Is there a killer giallo comic just waiting to be made? A German Expressionist book? A soap? Like the plotlines of Grindhouse itself, the possibilities are endless.
You can read the first two volumes of Grindhouse: Doors Open at Midnight on ComiXology Unlimited. Check them out and let me know if you think grindhouse can really be captured in comic book format. Then, drop me a line to let me know which other horror comics you’d like see talked about in this column. Finally, be sure to follow NOFS all July-long for a little event we call “Greedy Guts Month,” when we’ll be sharing some of our guiltiest pleasures, weirdest hobbies, and most ludicrous lists. Follow us on our Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook pages to make sure you don’t miss a single article. And for all your horror recommendations and reviews, keep lurking at Nightmare on Film Street.