Suehiro Maruo’s The Laughing Vampire and the Aesthetics of Horror in Comics

I

In Junji Ito’s Uzumaki(which I wrote about here) the community is positioned as an insane evil which orbits a protagonist who tries to do good.  Kyrie of Uzumaki is a traditional horror heroine.  The virginal good trying to avoid being marked by the evil that is flooding all around her until she is able to either escape or get turned into a pillar of salt.  Uzumaki in many ways affirms traditional values of good and evil, and positions good over evil.  Good is the path to be pursued.  The pursuit of good as a truism, without a deeper questioning of the merits of that pursuit.  

This structure is inverted in Suehiro Maruo’s The Laughing Vampire.  The Laughing Vampire comes out of the ashes and horrors of Nagasaki and Hiroshima.  The horror of that level of destruction affirms a completely different kind of thinking which is the seed from which The Laughing Vampire positions itself.

In the west, the typical justification for the bomb was that it saved innumerable lives that would have been lost in an invasion.  But the psychic toll of having the power to vaporize so many lives in an instant was immediately apparent in our arts.  Modernism died, and Post-modernism took root.  With post-modernism it was as if we could no longer see things as a totality anymore–but instead saw them fragmented across an endless desert of horrors from which we had to create a distance.  Maruo’s Laughing Vampire comes from the other side of that.  It is about the cultural nihilism that has to take root in response to that kind of cataclysm.  A nihilism born in defeat and concession.  The realization that there is only horror, and a view of a world of those who have violence done to them, and those who do violence.  With the latter being the celebrated hero.  To be able to inflict violence and death is to feel strong and superior.  We see this similar morality at play in Harmony Korine’s recent Spring Breakers–where the girls in the film are able to assert their agency and humanity through violence they learned from videogames and rap videos.  

There is a despair behind Konosuke Mori and Luna Miyawaki in Laughing Vampire.  The despairing to matter, to not be the victim, to not be weak.  To communicate to a world that ignores them at best, horrifies them at most–a kind of insane pain.

In that way it is cousin to some of the more violent short stories of Inio Asano.  These type of stories are interesting to me given the current climate around the world.  We are seeing a world dominated by terrorism and violence–both physical and mental.  And a lot of it is being perpetuated by a generation that has no economic, environmental, or political future.  We live in the future so there is no future.  I think these things make Maruo’s work more pertinent and timely than something like Uzumaki.  I don’t think there is a place for stories right now that are interested in good, the corruption of good, or the moralizing against evil.  The kids in the Laughing Vampire do bad things.  Really bad things.  Sometimes to bad people.  Sometimes to good people.  They don’t do it as an expression of purpose–but as an expression of living.  Good or bad–we’re just trying to live at the most basic level.  What is good are the things which please us.  What is bad is the things that don’t.  And that encompasses a wide swath of things which exist in Laughing Vampire without comment.  In Spring Breakers, Korine never commentates on the church group, he never really takes a stance for or against spring break itself, and in the end, the violence the girls perpetuate is not judged either.  It is all part of the same thing.

 

II

All that aside–my interest in the Laughing Vampire is primarily a functional one.  And there are a few things that Maruo does in his comics that I think are worth noting and talking about.  

One of the things that Suehiro Maruo is really strong with–like upper echelon of this comic shit strong–is his page composition.  His sense of how to move the eye, at what speed, and in what direction down the page–is really good.  Look at this page.  We start on the right side of the page, and the direction of the knife pulls us up to middle left of that top panel.  That goes against the direction your eye normally goes down a comic page.  That slight incline allows the knife to hang there a little while longer in the eye than it would if the incline was inverted–or if it was flat straight across.  He then uses his sound effect, and the lines indicating the shine of the knife to take you down into that left panel on the second row.  Which is kind of crazy–because the way you would read a japanese comic left to right–you would normally want to be on that far right panel on this row–but because of where the knife drops off–you have to go to the left panel and read it in a zig-zag down the page.  This is helped along by the speed lines which work functionally as a “read this direction” arrow.  The speed lines on the far left panel push in with the knife to Mori’s tongue.  And then the next panel the lines are dashing straight across which almost slams you into the side of the page.  And then you get flung like Mori’s knife into that fourth panel(which is also a phallic joke for the kids scoring at home)–and then we get the horizontal speed lines again on the last panel–which take you across to the left to the next page.

Which is your dramatic goth kids making out splash page(which…fireworks…for those scoring penis jokes at home).

 

I think in general when you are talking about Maruo, his experience as an illustrator and as a painter is probably why he has such a strong sense of composition.

That assuredness allows him to create beautiful pages like the one above.  This also speaks to the role time plays in his layouts.  Now all comic pages are inherently about time, and the artists’ navigation of time.  Maruo’s particular sensibilities–which also come across in how he shows motion are as an almost segmented singular moment.  There are more segments within the single moment Maruo depicts(Rakuda looking into the spider web/rakuda placing a step) than there are actual moments per page.  So like this page has three distinct images that it is sequencing.  But two of those images have 10 panel divisions.

This technique is one of my favorite in comics right now.  Because it is so intrinsically comic.  It is a celebration of the medium.  The convention is that one panel contains one story element, the next panel contains another–and as a reader we are taken on a conveyor belt through them.  But this technique plays with the beauty of that process as applied to a singular image.  It creates this beautiful flickering sensation while reading–and sort of breaks that trance the reader has of the story so they have to sort of step outside of just turning the page, and take in and appreciate the image across all of it’s details.  And then when you come in at the end with an actual “next panel” like the ear on this page–the effect is really powerful.

The other thing that gives these pages so much power is the dynamism with which Maruo depicts his actors.  He draws a lot from silent film actors which had to convey so much just with their body–so a lot of his characters come at you from slighly bent angles, and kind of walk with that lean–like actors on a stage.  

I think you can really see the silent film influences in his figure work in the above page.  You can feel the spotlights from behind the camera.  And the characters all have that kind of old silent film dramatism to their actions.  Look at what he’s done with the fingers of the characters on this page.  And how that conveys so much emotion and characterization about these people that you couldn’t really explain in words half as directly.

I mean even his shadows are acting.  I also think his skill with contrasts also helps create this sense that the panels are being filmed behind hot stage lights.  There’s a heat and sweat to his lighting that is tangible while you read.  And it creates these subtle hot and cool moments reading the book–where you almost feel relief in the darkness.  He makes the light hurt the reader in the same way it hurts his characters.

Look how the grass and flowers almost burn off the page.  He’s created that contrast because the blacks he does use are so strong.  He creates a contrast–but it’s different than the contrast you might see in something like Alack Sinner–which is more about just feeling the weight of shadows.  This is feeling the searing of the light.

 

Maruo’s Laughing Vampire reminds me a little bit of why Bernie Wrightson’s brand of illustration in horror works as well.  Both create a kind of realism–well even beyond that–they create a hyper reality on the page.

I read a Wrightson quote once where he was saying something to the effect of horror could be just a man in a white suit standing on a street corner–but because of the lighting–because of how the man is standing–because of how he is angled on the page–his expression on his face, or lack thereof–such a simple image can become horrific.

Suehiro Maruo works like that too I think.  The bare bones of what he doing is one thing.  But it’s all of the little details and tweaks which elevate it as horror.  With Junji Ito and Uzumaki we saw horror as a sequence of plot mechanisms–probably the apex of that approach.  With Maruo we see horror as an aesthetic.  Horror is the way you wear the sunglasses, the way you stand–the way the light works or doesn’t work.  It doesn’t REALLY matter what happens with the characters in The Laughing Vampire.  It’s not a great horror comic because of what happens to them, what they say, or what they even do.  It’s about the way they look as they dance the dance that brings forth the horror.  I think I lean most heavily on this approach as the correct way for horror to go forward in comics.  I don’t know that that’s per se because I feel it’s the superior approach–so much as the problems in contemporary american horror comics is that they do not approach the genre as an aesthetic first.  They see it as horror plots.  Horror stories.  Like it even mattered what happened in dracula.  All I remember is shit like the wolves howling.  Think about why Hannibal works so well on TV right now.  It’s not because of the story itself.  I don’t think anyone watching should give half a crap about who did what–and will we find them before whatever-a-crap.  We watch that show for the way Mads Mickelson talks, stands, and cooks.  The way the kill scenes are visualized.  To see the tired insanity slowly break Wil Graham’s eyes.  It will suck when it becomes about being Hannibal CSI–or when their aesthetic falls off.  That’s a huge digression–but if Maruo hadn’t made the Laughing Vampire look like an old silent film–if he hadn’t executed it with the aesthetic style choices that he did–it would not stand anywhere near Uzumaki as a work of horror.  But because of those choices–I dunno, I think large chunks of it are vastly superior.

6 comments
  1. What company publishes the english translation?

  2. So far as I know it’s not available in English. I don’t think it ever has been. However, the end of this month/beginning of next month Last Gasp is putting out The Strange Tale of Panorama Island, and I’m very excited about picking that up. That and Brandon Graham’s art book Walrus are sitting in my shopping cart ready to go when they come out.

  3. My library is getting The Strange Tale of Panorama Island so I’ll check it out thanks. Will you do a review of Walrus? I don’t usually pay much attention to art books but Brandon Graham is pretty extraordianary.

  4. matt jeske said:

    I think your point about American comics not approaching horror as an aesthetic is a good one. One exception to that I can think of, despite its limitations, is 30 Days of Night.

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