“Read a Damn Book – 160: Peculia”
What happens if you mix gothic horror, the old cheesiness of the Universal-style monster movies, Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy rogues gallery, and the surreal, nightmarish weirdness of dreams all in one comic? You get Peculia, that’s what happens!
[This is a photograph that I took of the actual book that I read. The image is included for review purposes only!]
Peculia is a collection of loosely connected, short, very strange stories, all starring Peculia, an independently wealthy breakfast cereal fanatic who likes to take walks, but who tends to get attacked, kidnapped, or waylaid every time she leaves her house (and is then saved either by her butler, Ambrose, or a mysterious, sinister figure, named Obscurus.) These stories are all written and drawn by Richard Sala, one of my absolute favorite comic creators, (I’ve previously reviewed his brilliant noir graphic novel, Mad Night), and all but one of these tales were previously serialized in Sala’s monthly comic, Evil Eye (published by Fantagraphics Books.) There are nine or ten stories here, presented in stunning black and white, with the final story (created just for this volume, according to the contents page) being a quick, “silent film” (no word balloons) in vivid hues in what appears to be watercolors (but might just be a digital effect---I can’t tell for sure…and I don’t care. I just LOVE how it looks.)
The WORLD that Richard Sala conjures in this book is a strange, gothic, noir place, full of sinister, oddly shaped figures, monsters, ghosts, zombies, spies, secret societies, sorcery, shape-shifting cult members, and vaguely super-heroic characters. Peculia, in this collection, seems to have no form of employment, but has a lovely house and paid servants (including both the supernaturally efficient butler, Ambrose, and a large, bird-headed doorman, named Byrd.) Her house is also within walking distance of shopping centers AND quaint European villages AND primeval forests full of monsters and deadly beasts, and although Peculia seems to LOVE going for walks, there is about a 50-50 chance that she is going to be grabbed from behind before she finishes her jaunt and hauled off by some evil fiend bent on some horrible scheme (usually involving murder or black magic or WORSE!)
Sala’s art style is cartoonish, but it also has a dark, gruesome element to it:
Again, like Charles Schulz, Sala creates some extremely emotive facial expressions with just a few lines. He is also a master of shadows and evocative lighting, and he’s also not afraid to take his cartoony characters and give them the full HORROR treatment. We get throats being bitten, folks being sizzled alive, gun shots through chests, and even one rather nasty exploding head---all in this one book. Did I mention yet that this collection is not for kids? Because it's NOT for kids! And not just because of the violence. There’s also a vaguely perverse, sexual element to some of these stories, with Peculia or some of the other female characters occasionally being portrayed in various states of undress. (Yep, there’s cartoon nudity in this book.) So, although the art style might SEEM kid friendly, the STORIES are definitely not. There’s violence, death, gore, nudity, and sexual insinuation (although nothing EXPLICIT) throughout the book---but it’s all done in a rather tongue-in-cheek tone, which I find brilliantly entertaining and funny.
The stories here are all quite short, as I've mentioned, and they’re driven by a sort of dream-logic. There are wildly implausible coincidences, secret cults with magical powers, and (to be fair) very little character development, at least in the title figure. She just seems to float through whatever comes her way, in the end rather unaffected by the carnage that's happening all around her. In a way, it’s almost like reading a monstrous version of Spy vs Spy, where you know who the characters are---because they never change---but you keep coming back to see what sort of crazy death-trap one or the other of the characters is going to fall into THIS time, but by the end of the day, you’re always back to square one. All is well---until NEXT time!
There are hints of some kind of back-story in these tales, particularly with the character, Obscurus, and his hench-woman, Justine, (who is obviously jealous of the attraction that Obscurus feels towards Peculia.) However, these hints and suggestions are more like tantalizing glimpses of something hidden than major plot developments, as the individual stories are just as likely to involve weird, cannibalistic witches; or a strange, giant, grasping hand on an infinitely long arm; or zombies; or a cute, little, psychopath girl with a rifle who wants to be friends with Peculia---some weird random thing---as they are to feature Justine or Obscurus (although even in the weirder tales, one of them will usually get a short cameo by the end of the story.)
For people looking for a wholesome, kid-friendly comic experience, Peculia is NOT going to be for you, but if what you want are some fun, weird, beautifully drawn, noir, monster stories, swimming in cartoon violence, and with a slightly perverse sub-text floating just beyond where your flickering candle-light can reach, there are few comics creators whose work can entertain as well as Sala’s does. This collection isn’t a straightforward narrative, like his books Mad Night or The Chuckling Whatsit are, as these are more like serialized stand-alone stories (which is what they WERE before being collected here), but this is still a very entertaining, incredibly strange comic that LOOKS great and is perfect for a dark laugh or two! Highly recommended, especially if you’re a fan or things like Edward Gorey or the old Creepy and Eerie horror comic magazines!
Okay! Are you convinced!? (If not, check out Sala’s BLOG and see what he’s been up to lately!!!)
---Richard F. Yates
(Primitive Thoughtician and Holy Fool)
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