Blood & Gourd #1-2
Created and Written by: Jenz K. Lund and D.H. Shultis
Artists: Juan Antonio Ramirez, Dave Acosta, and various
Colorist: Fran Gamboa
Letterers: JC Ruiz and Jessica Jimerson
Published by Dead Peasant
"It's Devil's Night in Olympia, WA- and out at Henderson Farms, the festivities are reaching a crescendo. Young and old have gathered to pick their own pumpkin, drink hot apple cider, and partake in the usual pumpkin farm fare. However, something has awakened from deep within the fertile soil. After years of abuse and humiliation, the pumpkins... are ready to pick us. You can beg! You can plead! You can scream! But these Hell's lanterns are lit only with the burning desire to watch you die."
--from the Blood & Gourd website
In horror, I've seen people attempt to try and separate between two categories: serious and campy. The former implies horror that takes itself seriously with a focus on atmosphere, psychological themes, complex symbolism, and well-thought out characters and storytelling. The latter categorizes horror considered kitsch with a heavier emphasis on over-the-top blood, guts, sex, and cheesy one-liners. This categorization leads to a critical hierarchy of serious horror films assumed as superior to campy horror. You've seen it before in published reviews and numerous comments online. That one person has to go and proclaim how The Exorcist is better than those silly Friday the 13th films. It is an inevitable part of the arts. Someone's always got to make a standard of what is considered good, and usually it's "shit gotta be serious and have no fun else it ain't art."
Read my lips: That's bullshit.
Neither camp nor seriousness are markers of quality. There is serious horror that is trash and campy horror that is pure gold and vice versa. It's not about if you're having fun or contemplating the dark side of the world. It's the execution that counts. For example, Evil Dead II is so campy that it's practically Looney Tunes on crack, yet it is critically acclaimed and considered a classic in the genre. Oh, and how about The Exorcist? Sure, it was scary back in the day, but I bet if you went and re-watched it, you would find some of those practical effects hilarious. I'll go further and add that seriousness and camp can coincide. You can be over the top while delivering some serious scares and good storytelling.
Blood & Gourd is a comic that successfully blends camp and seriousness. It succeeds with the help of great art, thought-out story and characters, and genuinely serious moments.
The ball gets rolling with issue #1's cover art. Juan Antonio Ramirez has an expressive, striking style. The details to the pumpkin humanoid and the mayhem under them are rich both in design and disturbing imagery. The colors by Fran Gamboa add to this with dark tones and eerie lighting effects. Oh, and some blood splatter for that needed layer of icing on a nasty cake. When looking at this cover, I get a visceral feeling of excitement, danger, and immediate terror. It's the feeling you get on a roller-coaster or chased down by a madman with an ax. What? Only me? OK.
The back cover by The Gurch! (distant cousin of the Grinch?) is different but achieves its own kind of terror. The somber coloring and grunginess of the illustration sends a tingle up my back. I'm not shocked or frozen with fear. Instead, I have an uncomfortable sense of dread and anticipating something really bad is about to happen. It's scary enough the pumpkin freak has an armful of decapitated heads. It's scarier to think what he will do next with them.
Issue #2's cover achieves the same artistic quality and type of terror as #1, but is heightened by the appearance of two main characters. Suddenly, I'm not just scared of the pumpkins. I have to now worry about the safety of people, even fictional ones, that I care about. As for the back cover by Todd Shearer, nothing is particularly visceral in its horror, although I do like the intimidating appearance of Pumpkin Rex over the humans. It makes me think of Chernabog from Fantasia aka that gargoyle motherfucker who gave 90s children panic attacks every time "Night on Witch Mountain" came on.
So, the packaging is ace. Now, what about the interior art? Dave Acosta is the illustrator of issue #1, and his style is wonderfully organic, places and objects appearing to be straight out of reality. Gamboa's colors are the backbone though. He fleshes out Acosta's style with colors that look alive and natural. My favorite scene is the opening when a couple of big wigs visit Mr. Pleasant's pad. It's not grimmer than grim or darker than an ugly ass gray filter, but instead bright and dominated by rich reds, blues, and greens. It puts the reader in a deceiving state of calm before the eruption of violence in the splash page. When the go to for horror is to obscure audience's vision with darkness, it's refreshing to instead put the terror in broad daylight and scare them shitless by toying with expectation.
As I said before, Acosta's illustration looks like it came from reality. Now, that doesn't mean it displays every detail. This is not hyper-realism. Instead, it more has to do with the lighting. Yet again, Gamboa's colors are what make it work. The countryside setting of Blood & Gourd is lit with the natural glow of the sun; in scenes on long stretches of road, it is especially blinding. Having visited such areas frequently, I felt like the scenes were spot on with their depictions, even if human characters tended to clutter them up. Don't think that I'm saying Gamboa does all the work. He and Acosta compliment each other to make great art.
Turning our attention to the characters, Acosta and Gamboa do a good job of a diverse set of characters. Not necessarily diverse in the notion of identity (gender, ethnicity, sexuality, etc.) but in terms of body types and facial features. There was only ever one time I felt like two characters looked the same, and even then upon closer examination I realized there were enough differences so that they weren't too similar. Another thing I love about the art is emotional expression. It isn't striking, not emotional in the sense of overwhelming the viewer. There are no eyes wide as spotlights indicating excitement, no burning red cheeks for embarrassment. It's subtle, the way we slightly smile when bemused, eyes half-open and absent-minded when we're upset. It's the kind of emotion where one has to pay attention to the dialogue then look closely at a character's face and notice the subtle ways in which they react. This kind of subtle expression is hard to capture even for the most talented artist, yet Acosta and Gamboa seem to do it effortlessly.
The art for this issue isn't perfect. There were a few times where movement was wonky and inconsistencies with how characters are drawn, but they were so minor that even I have forgotten them. Damn. I was looking forward to nitpicking.
Issue #2 is illustrated by the cover artist, and a lot of what I praised about it earlier applies similarly here. The only thing I have to nitpick at is the artificiality of characters. They're drawn with jagged lines which takes away the organic naturalism of Acosta's art. This is not to say that one art style was better than the other. They're different from each other, both excellent, and interestingly work with the unique story structures of issues #1 and #2.
Issue #1 reads more as a classic third act structure. Act One introduces the concept of the comic and ends with a sting, a brief moment of horror that anticipates the reader for more to come. Act Two lays out the setting and the cast. Finally, Act Three unleashes hell and the monsters come out to play. On the other hand, issue #2 is more action-oriented. It follows up with Act Three of issue #1 but stretches it out for an entire issue. This almost causes the action to become repetitive except the interesting ways characters are split up to groups and new story threads are set up. I really like this difference, and I think the art compliments it. Acosta's organic, naturalistic style works more for the steady pace of issue #1, while Ramirez's frantic, chaotic style lends more to the balls-out nature of issue #2. Artwork should complement writing style, and changing the art for each issue is an interesting approach to accommodate changes in structure.
Now, where would I be talking about a horror comic full of monsters without talking about the actual monsters? Evil pumpkins might sound like a corny as hell idea, and it is, but it works. The design of the pumpkins is evil jack-o'-lantern faces combined with twisted vines similar to the angry molesting trees of Evil Dead fame (minus the actual molesting part...for now). On paper, that's not necessarily exciting, but the artists' execution makes it work. The veins form chaotically, unleashing goretastic mayhem as they form the bodies of their hosts. There is even some variety with the type of pumpkin monsters. The two most notable are the giant, and the head leech that are one part Alien face rapists and second part cursed masks from Halloween III. I particularly like the head leeches because they latch onto humans and turn them into pumpkin zombies. It's crazy and shows how the creators were having fun with the concept.
JC Ruiz and Jessica Jimerson's lettering completes the art by providing clean, expressive lettering. Sometimes there are a bunch of dialogue balloons clumped together obscuring things, but most of the time the lettering is positioned in advantageous ways that moves naturally with the art. It is also stylized to express emotions, bold for shouting and deep red-orange for screaming to name a few. It drives home what is happening on panel and adds another layer to the horrific imagery.
Moving on to the writing, Jen K. Lund and D.H. Shuitis balance between the humor and horror of the series. There are plenty of laughs to be had, best of all the kind that come out organically through dialogue. There are slapstick gags, but they never feel shoehorned. I've already mentioned the story structure of both issues, and it's obvious by how well they execute the purpose of each plot that the writers thought this out to every detail. It's not perfect, but neither is it a hot mess. They take the storytelling seriously even though it's campy fun by making sure story works and not just an afterthought for tons o' gore.
There is an interesting mythology behind the pumpkin monsters. I won't spoil it, but it has to do with a cult. If you're getting Children of the Corn vibes, you're spot on, but it's more plausible than that. Well, as plausible as pumpkin monster cults can be but whatever. There isn't too much about this cult yet, some hints here and there to where they come from and why they're doing this, but nothing concrete yet. My only concern is that this mythology will become confusing. Then again, it's already a batshit crazy idea in a campy horror comic, so maybe that's just part of the fun? I'll wait patiently and see.
What I really love about Lund and Shuitis' writing are the characters. They are a unique, engaging cast. There is Lori, a high-strung mother and her two sons, emo edgelord Tristan and meek pony-lover Morgan. They're the most realistic portrayal of a family I have ever seen, Tristan and Morgan fighting constantly over petty stuff while Lori tries to keep them behaved, but is such a nervous wreck herself that she'll go from disciplining her children for bad language to yelling obscenities at someone in the next moment.
I found this hypocrisy not annoying but amusing and true to real life. Parents will always try to teach their kids to do better, but themselves commit the very taboos they dissuade. As for the kids, Tristan is pretty one-sided. He's purely unlikable and is set up for the audience to loathe and enjoy when he gets his comeuppances. Morgan, on the other hand, seems to demand the audience's sympathy because he is meek. Although, the only indicator of meekness is his love for ponies. This is solidified when a tomboyish girl mocks him for it, seeming to indicate she is even more boyish than him.
Usually, I would be mad because marking someone as a Brony (let's use this term for the sake of familiarity) is to mark a character as weak/weird/flawed or other negative capacity and motivate the audience to dislike him. Fortunately, Morgan is set up to be more sympathetic, but I personally only find the motivation to do so because I can relate to being teased for violating and/or failing to live up to socially determined ideals of masculinity. Morgan is otherwise an unengaging character because he is receptive rather than proactive, only motivated to do anything significant because someone makes him. Also, his pony talks.
There's yet to be any explanations for why and how, but hopefully the talking pony will, in later issues, add an element of growth to Morgan. Although, I kind of would like if the pony was just completely random for the sake of weird, campy humor.
Other characters include the yokels that live in town. There is Vernon, a rather dislikeable grouch. When the reader first meets him, he utters comments about "Kenyan who hates free market" and referring to people that he sees as not true country-raised or city dwellers as "turkeynecks." Yeah, so a racist, self-righteous jackass is probably someone you want to see die immediately at the hands of pumpkin monsters. However, Vernon proves he's a capable man able to survive in such a scenario and even ends up helping some of the characters. If you're adamantly anti-bigotry, you'll probably never like him, but I on the other hand find this capable side of Vernon enduring and shows that there is actually good in him.
There is also Cal, an all organic pumpkin grower. At first, he seems like a Boy Scout that plays by the rules and has a strong moral compass. When he loses his multi-year champion title, he appears to take it in stride. However, he secretly hates losing. This doesn't seem to add anything significant to the larger story, but I do think it's a nice bit of complexity.
The most interesting of these characters is Kelly Henderson, the daughter of the owner of the farm in which Blood & Gourd takes place. Kelly has the most complex moral dilemma. She loves her father and the farm, but is unable to make ends meet in order to maintain it, so she is forced to sell it off. This feels Kelly with guilt and anger, and she hides that by claiming to never had liked the farm in the first place. She also has a secret lover named Alejandro, an employee of her father's, and the buy-out wedges a wall between them. Kelly's experiencing a complicated series of emotions right now, much like real people do when a personal lost is experienced. When Mr. Pleasant and the pumpkins come out to play, however, Kelly immediately takes action and fights to protect everyone around her. Even then, she commits a morally gray action that personal affects Morgan. How this will also affect Kelly is yet to be seen, but adds yet another layer of complexity to her character. She is no doubt the protagonist and proves to be an engaging one at that.
The only problem is that Kelly is so complex that she outshines the other characters. They're engaging, but not as much. Also, their lack of complexity seems to make them less viable to the plot. Kelly's personal conflicts with the farm are easily set up to play a larger role in the more immediate conflict of defeating Mr. Pleasant and the pumpkins, and how she succeeds/fails will lead to growth if the writers do it right. However, the other characters and their personal conflicts don't seem to play such a significant part. They're easily tossed out, especially when the action starts. I get that since Blood & Gourd is a campy horror comic, dropping the ball on deeper literary themes is expected. The selling point is the spectacle after all. However, it would still be a mistake by the writers because this flaw would, at least for an in-depth reader like me, be significant flaws to a comic that clearly had a lot of effort put into it.
Finally, there is Mr. Pleasant, a man who is anything but. As far as villains go, he is the ultimate in campy villainy. He is a mad scientist hell-bent on destroying the town with his motivations solely because he wants to. He acts weird, can't go a scene without laughing sinisterly, and dresses like a cross between the G-Man and John Lennon (who I must mention was a wife beater and child abuser, so he definitely counts as evil). He kills indiscriminately, men, women, and children, and shows no remorse for it. Yeah, a villain like this isn't complex. He's solely designed to be hated. And that's not a bad thing. Attempting to make a character morally gray, sympathetic, or give them justification for their actions isn't always interesting. Sometimes the best villains are simply the ones we love to hate. Mr. Pleasant's presence is so strong that he is engaging and even riveting. He doesn't need to be complex as long as he makes an impression. I hate him, I love hating him, yet I also want to dress up as him because I love that he is so simplistically evil. In the end, that is all I need from him.
Now, you're probably thinking at this point, "OK, Scary Cleve. I get it. The comic's well-executed camp. But how can it compare to the greats like Let The Right One In?" While first and foremost a campy horror comic, Blood & Gourd has moments that tend to be thought of as reserved for serious horror. There is the complex characterization and expertly executed storytelling I've mentioned, but there are unique moments of symbolism.
In issue #1, there is a moment when Kelly's with her father and he laments the rags-to-riches story of their family. The scene starts off with an image of the very first Kelly house, a rundown cabin that looks like it's currently home to a flesh-bound book for summoning cackling corpses (more on that later). After a few panels of Kelly and Pa talking back and forth, the panel is of the current Henderson residence which is mansion-esque. Not only does this clearly indicate the prosperity of the family since their humble beginnings, but the dialogue shared between Kelly and Pa drives home how emotionally devastating it is for them to be losing not just their home and farm but all the history that comes with it. It's a poignant moment, one I wasn't expecting yet pleasantly surprised by.
Another surprising moment is from issue #2, and it's horrifying. Although there is a little bit of gore, this scene is more psychological. A couple, assumed to be members of the Henderson clan from earlier years, are struggling to grow crops, so they dig a hole and bury a pumpkin with a sacrifice inside. I won't give it away, but certain visual clues strongly imply what it is. When I figured it out, I was so shocked I froze and stared at the page for a good solid ten minutes. It's shocking not in gross out way, but gets under your skin and makes you stay up at night thinking "what the hell did I just witness?" It's not a moment that detracts from the campy side of the comic though. It adds to the more serious themes that were already emerging.
Both of these moments are executed with impressive visual symbolism that says a lot by showing instead of telling, and isn't "show, don't tell" a mark of serious horror and art in general? This isn't to say Blood & Gourd transcends its campy origins to evolve into something more advanced, but it's a good indicator that campy and serious can coincide without clashing. Have gory fun, but also remember that developing characters so the audience cares about them isn't bad. Be dark and psychological, but also have an occasional fart joke to lighten the mood.
One finally thing I'll talk about is the political message in the comic. That's right! This actually exists. Blood & Gourd, aside from being about blood-soaked pumpkins, is also about the environment. It's not at all subtle, Cal makes mention of how he grows his pumpkins GMO and chemical-free and wins the away nature attends to. While with Mr. Pleasant, he makes mention of how humanity is a disease and through the wrath of the pumpkins, he is returning the world to some natural order. This almost gives him that morally gray motivation some readers might seek in a more complex villain, but I think the sheer amount of violence Pleasant commits overshadows that. The political message here is on the nose, which isn't out of place. There have been a number of campy horror films, They Live, The Stuff, and the lumbering, 100-foot king of environmentalist allegories Godzilla. All these movies have political messages that are just as over the top as their campiness. Again, not a bad thing at all. In fact, it just adds to the fun. Whether or not you like it is a matter of personal taste.
I do worry though that all of these many ways Blood & Gourd makes itself more than the sum of its parts will not be fleshed out. I've seen this before where a horror movie, campy or serious, starts out with interesting ideas, but they are thrown aside to appeal to generic genre tropes. Will this happen here? I love a mindless monster romp, but you can't promise me chocolate chips at the start only to give me raisins instead, you fucking scumbags! But OK. I'll play along for now. Let me down, and so help me...
Blood & Gourd is a fun horror comic that manages to be campy while having great storytelling, art, and genuinely serious moments. It's not perfect and risks dropping the ball on its better qualities, but the first two issues should give readers enough confidence to continue reading. If nothing else, this should give you some interesting ideas for Halloween.
Where to by the comics: