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A review a day: Sand & Fury

by  in Comic News Comment
A review a day: <i>Sand & Fury</i>

I suppose the official name is Ho Che Anderson’s Sand & Fury: A Scream Queen Adventure, but who wants to type that? Oh, wait, I just did. Moving on!

I’ve never actually read anything by Ho Che Anderson, so when Fantagraphics produced this, I figured I must check it out. Anderson has a good reputation, and this is a mere $16.99 (higher in Canada, because that’s where they gouge you!), so why not give it a try?

Sand & Fury, according to the descriptions and the testimonials on the back, is “the illegitimate child of Faulkner and Lovecraft” (Howard Chaykin), inspired by David Lynch, Dario Argento, Richard Sala, and a spiritual cousin of Polanski’s Repulsion (the blurb), while Anderson’s art “calls to mind the minimalist abstractions of Frank Miller” (The Guardian). That’s a lot to digest, ain’t it? Anderson tells the story of a banshee (or, if you want to get technical, a bien sidhe) who roams the desert of (presumably) the American Southwest screaming people to death. They’re nasty people, though, and it’s her job, so there’s that. Meanwhile, there’s a nemesis looking for her, and older banshee who knows things she doesn’t, and a man she has trouble dispatching. Oh, and a serial killer. It’s all very pot-boilerish. Our heroine, who remains unnamed, met with a violent death herself, and she’s having trouble staying on task because she’s trying to rediscover who she is.

Anderson makes sure that our banshee is just not a pleasant person, pre-death (we see quite a bit of her life in flashback). She cannot feel pain (literally), and this seems to extend to her emotions, as she uses people and then spits them out when they have nothing left to give her. In her new existence, she seems to want to make some amends, but that’s no longer possible – the woman she was is dead, and she has a new purpose. But she’s conflicted about her purpose until she meets Lydia, the older banshee, who explains about their nemesis and why they exist.

Our banshee begins to understand that her burden is still that, but if she accepts it, it becomes a bit lighter.

This is a horror comic, so there’s a great deal of violence and sex. Anderson isn’t shy about nudity, and there’s plenty of it – both female and male. He takes our banshee’s selfishness to extreme places, far further than we usually see in fiction, which is a fairly welcome change. It’s certainly unpleasant, but we have to see where she’ll go so we can understand whence she has to come back. Her journey is the best part of the book, because Anderson makes her human life so vile that we cheer her redemption – such as it is – all the more. It’s nice because we’re not exactly sure she deserves redemption, so the fact that she has to die to begin to get to it lessens the anger we might feel if she got away with all the shit she pulls in life. She pays a huge price, so the fact that she was a terrible human being doesn’t bother us as much.

Unfortunately, the rest of the book isn’t as good. I can’t recommend Sand & Fury for a couple of reasons. In his attempts to make this a true horror comic, Anderson focuses far too much on the nemesis and his battle with the banshees, and it turns into simply a battle royale between good and evil – or at least evil and less evil, as I don’t think we can call the banshees “good.”

The nemesis is a creepy fellow, but his machinations are fairly boring and frankly, get in the way of the redemptive power of the book. One could argue that the banshee couldn’t find redemption unless she fights the nemesis, but that’s the clumsiest way to achieve redemption – she’s forced into action, and only that way does she realize she’s been given a job to do and to ignore it leads to tragedy. It interferes with her growth as a character, and therefore, although her redemption is genuine, it still feels a bit unearned – she’s put in a position where she can only choose the greater good, and when your choices are narrowed to one, how real can that choice be? It’s frustrating, because you can feel the book turning into a standard horror story, and you keep hoping Anderson will avoid it. He doesn’t, and the book becomes a mess at the end. It’s not a bad ending, but it is a fairly predictable one, and for a book that largely managed to avoid predictability, it’s a shame.

That’s not even the worst part of the book, which I’ve saved for last. This comic is ugly. It’s not ugly in the way I assume the quote up there comparing it to Frank Miller means – Miller’s work is often ugly, but that’s a compliment more than anything. I mean that Anderson’s art is terrible, and it’s worse because there are certain pages that are hauntingly beautiful, so the ugliness is deliberate. Early on in the book, it appears as if he’s using a primitive computer drawing program and photographs laid onto dull backgrounds to achieve an effect that a pre-teen messing around on a computer might get (these are five consecutive pages from early on):

Then, he switches to very rough and heavy linework, which isn’t bad, as it looks almost like a woodcut and gives the scenes a sense of grandeur even though they’re set in the most mundane of places. Whenever we get close-ups, the lines become more and more like cheesy computer graphics. Then, at random points in the book, we get delicate linework that is quite good but still fairly stiff. I’ve looked through the book and cannot determine why Anderson shifts the styles around – there’s absolutely no rhyme nor reason for it, as far as I can tell. You honestly don’t know, page to page, which kind of art you’re going to get, and it makes the changes extremely jarring.

There’s no flow whatsoever to the art, and while that might be what Anderson is going for, the bad art is so overwhelmingly bad that it makes it very difficult to appreciate what’s going on in those scenes, plus it makes the pages with decent art harder to take, because you keep wondering why on earth the rest of the book can’t look this way. It’s a very sloppy comic, in other words, and although both the blurb on the back and The Guardian‘s quote call it “expressionistic,” the fact that the art is so wildly inconsistent and, at times, not expressionistic at all makes that description meaningless. It’s very frustrating reading this comic, and it makes an unpleasant but interesting story more unpleasant and far less interesting.

While I can see that Anderson has talent, the way this book is put together doesn’t fill me with confidence about seeking his other stuff out. There’s some very strong writing and art in Sand & Fury, but there’s also a lot that is pointless and downright ugly. Anderson raises some interesting ideas about violence, sex, and our fear of both, but ultimately, he lets the book get away from existential horror and back to a dull slasher comic. It’s too bad. There’s a lot of potential in Sand & Fury, but it doesn’t live up to it all that much.

Tomorrow: The Swedes are taking the jobs American cartoonists won’t do! How dare they!

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