Tuesday, October 1, 2013

The Witching Hour (Jeph Loeb) review:

 ‘Tis the month of Halloween; the time of year when spirits walk and skulls cry out from their graves beneath the earth, the time of year when I was born, and the time of year when this blog becomes a phantasmagorical celebration of the grotesque and ghoulish…no wait that’s how it always is on here. Forget I said that. I suck at introductions.

  Anyway, to kick this month off, I’ve decided to review a comic which many read around this time of year. It’s a limited series published by DC in the late 90’s that ends with the number three, is written by Jeph Loeb in collaboration with an artist whose drawings are arguably the driving force of the book and who has a passion for drawing women with shadows under their eyes, features multiple protagonists, gruesome murders connected to objects that have some “ironic” meaning to them, broken dreams, a Halloween night that has dire consequences for everyone involved, a family torn apart, a killer who wears a trench coat and slouch hat, and ludicrously overdone Irish accents.

 The comic I’m talking about is the three-issue Vertigo series The Witching Hour.
 What? You thought I was talking about some other comic by Loeb that revolves around Halloween?
 That may have sounded flippant, and The Witching Hour is definitely not a comic that is going to please everyone, particularly those who have problems with Loeb’s story structuring in his Batman comics. In many ways, it’s an incoherent (Don’t even think of reading this in intervals over the course of a few days, as the non-linear style will screw with your head), pretentious mood piece which gets by mainly on the strengths of Chris Bachalo’s artwork. At the same time, it’s also the most unique, ambitious, and haunting thing Loeb has ever written, and manages to be thoroughly engrossing in its weirdness. It’s more reminiscent of Neil Gaiman or some particularly weird story from Creepy than anything Loeb had done before (or since). It also has the benefit of improving upon re-readings, even though some of the most baffling elements still never quite come to make sense.
  The simplest way of summarizing this series would simply be to say that it’s about a group of witches living in Manhattan who grant wishes. A more honest way of describing the book would be to say: It’s about a bunch of morally ambiguous weirdos with oddly-defined supernatural powers who cross paths with a bunch of assholes and a few (seemingly) nice folks, and a bunch of weird shit then happens with constant shifting of viewpoints, bad attempts at EC comics style poetic justice, and "shock" revelations that render key parts of the comic pointless.

 And yet, those key parts that get rendered pointless are a lot of fun to watch unravel, and the characters, for as many of them as there, are an interestingly odd, if not terribly deep or well-developed lot.
The five witches that the story focuses on are named White, Gray, Black, Red and Blue.

 White, also known as Amanda, is the closest thing the mini-series has to a protagonist. She seems at first to be a chipper young woman with magical powers, yet it becomes obvious she has a darker side. She’s the leader of the witches, and leaves behind (appropriately) a blank white business card to whomever she grants wishes. However, despite all her power, it seems Amanda isn’t as sure of herself as she should be, since she regularly attends psychiatric sessions to find out who she is. As we find out from her therapy sessions, she was Amanda Collins, daughter of a fortune teller named Madeleine and a religious fanatic priest (You can tell where this is going…) who fled from Ireland in the 1600’s to the American colonies. She was almost caught performing a ritual (while naked) on Halloween, which resulted in the Salem Witch Trials. So is she immortal, or a reincarnation of Amanda Collins? She also wears a watch necklace that is eternally stuck at, you guessed it; 12:00, the Witching Hour.
What'd I tell you about the accents?
  Then we have Gray, also known as Aleister, who narrates the story.

 Being 600 years old, Gray’s seen a thing or two, and his cynical soliloquies are both the best and worst thing about the book. Loeb writes some pretty hilarious lines for him, but much like in Long Halloween, they often come off as pretentious, trying too hard to seem clever or quotable. Still, Gray is a pretty likeable old rogue. He’s the one who watched over Amanda when she fled to America after promising her mother he’d watch over her for “Forever and a Day”, which she made very clear by writing the words “Forever and a Day” in the quilt she was laying in:
Fun fact: Madeleine was also the mother of Crazy Quilt
 Hey, subtlety was never Loeb’s strong suit.
 Less important, but still memorable is Black, who is, well a black kid. He speaks mostly in quotes from famous poets and authors. Believe it or not, this isn’t as pretentious as it sounds and is kind of amusing, even though the character comes to play little role in the story.
 Then there’s Blue, a huge man who never speaks and performs card tricks while wearing an immaculate suit that contrasts with his cheap sneakers. He’s apparently a gentle giant, but we never get to see much of that.
 Then there’s Red, who also seems to be obsessed with luck and gambling. She doesn’t really make much of an impression until the end.
 Then we have the human characters:

-Ed, who runs a bar called Dante’s (Symbolism!) and who is apparently having severe marital problems, to put it mildly. He’s found a solution though. Since this is a horror comic about bad things happening to bad people, take a guess.
 He also has a golden cigarette lighter with “Forever Yours” engraved on it. Ooh, I wonder what will happen to him?

-Charity, an “ironically” named greedy, self-pitying drug addict who recently lost custody of her son and who fantasizes of being wealthy and powerful. Ooh, I wonder what will happen to her?
Okay, that is cold

-Amy; a young woman whose family is falling apart because of her cheating, neglectful father and painfully obtuse mother. She wishes that she could have her father back, forever. Ooh, I wonder what will happen to her and her family?
-Dexter, a bubble gum blowing loser who Ed hired to dispose of his wife’s corpse in return for paying off his gambling debts. That said, he seems like a nice guy, and doesn’t seem to have any desires that could be twisted like the others. Could redemption be in store?
 As you can imagine, everything goes horribly wrong (and horribly right) for all involved.

 This might be the most awkward review I’ve ever written, listing all the major characters this way, but really, it’s the only way to review this book without just giving a capsule synopsis or a completely spoiler-ridden examination of every single thing in the book. That’s because there’s no real big story per se, just interconnected vignettes involving different people. And as you can see, a lot of those people are fairly stock archetypes whose fates are telegraphed pretty early on, and when they aren’t, it’s because those fates were just poorly built up to in the first place, which makes some scenes come off as forced. For example, the fate that befalls Amy’s father is that he gets turned into a statue and added to her mother’s statue collection, thus bringing him “home” permanently as Amy wished. However, we don’t get to see the collection really emphasized until the statue is delivered, which completely kills any shock value the reveal might have had.
  I understand what Loeb was going for here, he wants to subvert the traditional horror story structure of focusing on some ne’er do well who gets screwed over/helped by magical beings, by focusing on the magical beings and how they view the world. It’s a fascinating idea, even if it had sort of been done before in Sandman (See what I meant when I called this series Gaiman-esque?), and I admire how he doesn’t humanize the witches too much and still lets them keep an aura of the mysterious and sinister, but the way it’s handled just gives off the feeling that Loeb never quite knew what to make of them himself.

 For example, an otherwise sympathetic character begins the story committing a gruesome murder the significance of which never quite becomes clear. At first I thought it had something to do with Ed’s wife, but that would mean the witches helped Ed commit the murder just so they could punish him for it, which, although a cool idea for a horror story (they’re only helping him so they can claim his soul or something) doesn’t jibe either with what we see in the book or with the book’s portrayal of the witches as quasi-superheroes who offer people the chance for redemption through wishes.
  One really gets the feeling that The Witching Hour was a set-up for an ongoing series that never came to be, with all of this just being framework for future stories that either Loeb or other writers would build upon. Considering that ‘The Witching Hour’ was also the name of an old Bronze Age horror anthology series of DC’s (that was also hosted by witches), that may very well have been the case. This is just speculation, but the first issue is titled “Ed’s story”, which doesn’t make much sense considering that the story is never told from his viewpoint and the other human characters don’t get sections subtitled “X’s story”. So perhaps TWH was intended to be an ongoing, focusing on one character each issue, but some editor , for whatever reason, decided to cram all these different stories into one big mini-series, and Loeb agreed since it would make the resulting comic have a unique feel.
 Speculation and complaints about story structure aside, the comic has many of Loeb’s trademark excesses, such as blatantly obvious symbolism (One character is offered two different paths her life will take while in an elevator depending on which of two floor buttons she pushes, one white, one black) and “clever” turns of phrase like a particularly cringe-worthy use of Nabokov’s old “Therapist” joke. Still, Loeb does manage to give all of the character’s individual voices, and he succeeds at humor surprisingly well, such as the random places the witches decide to meet. He even manages to make the clichéd promise Gray made to Amanda’s mother genuinely touching, particularly when Gray reflects on it toward the very end of the book.
Banter between the witches results in the best parts of the book
 Bacahlo’s art is the real star though. I wasn't particularly wowed by what I've seen of his manga-esque style, and some of his flaws are apparent here (There are times when Amanda, Red and Charity all look the same except for their hair color, and considering all of the monochrome panels, you sometimes don’t have even that to go on!), but this particular work has made me desperate to see more. His fairy tale version of Ireland and sullen looking American colonies, as well as his beautifully rendered New York, are almost characters in their own right. Some of these panels have a real sense of wonder at work, the kind you feel when you go out at night really late in a safe spot of town, there’s no one around, and you look at all the streetlamps and listen to the sounds of the city.
 All things considered, The Witching Hour is pretty flawed, and the non-linear approach to storytelling is going to kill it for some people. At the same time, considering Loeb’s rabid fan-following and the fact that he was obviously trying to do something different with this book, I’m surprised it isn’t considered his masterpiece by fandom! Clearly some higher-up at DC likes it, since they’ve tried to re-issue it several times, once in prestige format with an introduction by Gene Simmons! I guess fans just tend to ignore works by otherwise beloved creators if those works aren’t superhero related in some way (Hey, maybe that is the kind of “privilege” all of the losers on Scans_Daily and Tumblr should really be whining about! They obviously don’t know shit about real issues). Still, if you want to read something weird, I recommend it. The general premise is a novel one for horror comics, and for all the snark I made about characterization earlier, I really have to admit I like the characters of Amanda, Gray and even the other members of the coven. DC is putting out another (unrelated) Witching Hour series this October, and while I’m always glad to have a new anthology horror book on the market, I still think the concept behind this series is one worth revisiting. I’d buy it.
  However, I can’t say that I’d wait for it for forever and a day. 3/5.

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