Blackgas (Avatar)

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blackgas-header.jpgAcclaimed author Warren Ellis ventures into splatter-porn with this zombie-horror collection that doesn't skimp on the gore or the depravity.

 

 

144 pgs. FC; $19.99 softcover, $27.99 hardcover

(W: Warren Ellis; A: Max Fiumara & Ryan Waterhouse)

 

Blackgas, despite the sound of it, is not an unfortunate White Castle aftereffect. It is a violent little Warren Ellis aftereffect, in the form of a TPB collecting a six-issue mini-series written by the cynical Brit.

The book begins with the ominous foreshadowing of a horror movie (and it's from Avatar, so, to coin a phrase, there will be blood). Tyler brings his new girlfriend Soo to meet his parents at their home, on a remote, forested island. They trudge through the woods at night, encountering first a notorious backwoods loner skinning a dog (!!), and then a professor who shares tales of the creepy Indian legends about the island. I guess we're not in Candyland.

Almost immediately, the island experiences a violent tremor, the ground opens, and the black gas of the title pours out from a fissure deep in the earth.

The wraparound cover to the Blackgas softcover. Click for a larger image.Turns out, it's zombie gas. Whatever this stuff is, every couple of hundred years, the earth farts it out, the people breathe it in, and zombification ensues. (People, people who eat people, are the luckiest people...) Except these zombies don't just eat the living and the dead. They have sex with them, too. Right there on the streets, with their eyes and other orifices streaming with black blood. And they call them nearly unprintable names while they're at it, too, like "retarded prettyboy cocksucker."

It's all kinds of horrid, right from the darkest corner of the id. In the words of Soo, "It [black gas] makes you evil, you know. All the black shit inside you that you try to hold in. You just can't anymore."

So our heroic couple find themselves in the midst of a Disneyworld of gory scenes, trying to make their way to a boat and get off the island.

The reader pores over images of a playground flooded with blood, dead children poking through the muck; a limbless torso heaved through a living-room window; a head split apart by a shotgun blast; a baseball bat used to separate a man's jaw from the rest of his head; and on and on. Speaking of jaw-droppers, one zombie gal decapitates her husband, cuts off his genitals, and stuffs them in his mouth. No details are spared in the close-up shot in the panel. If this isn't vile, I'm not sure what is.

It's curious that when we see bloody scenes with this kind of intensity in horror films, often the camera pulls away after a second or two, so the gross-out is mercifully brief. In comics (which, any Scott McCloud fan can tell you, tell stories in an awfully cinematic style), you may stare at the gore as long as you like before you turn the page. The effect, with this sort of splatter-porn that Avatar has made its specialty, is a sustained vileness. A sense that we are in the hands of an adolescent storyteller reveling in bodies split open, guts everywhere, protagonists slipping through them, headless corpses being raped and on and on, all the way to Vomit City. You have to slow down and look, and then you're kinda stunned by the savagery of the art. It's an effective charnel-house nightmare, to say the least. It is also clearly not for children or the squeamish.

The wraparound cover to the Blackgas limited edition hardcover.As a lover of all things horror, even I was taken aback. The visuals, courtesy of artists Max Fiumara and Ryan Waterhouse, are professional. The devil is in the details, and these two know how to illustrate an apocalyptic gorefest. I enjoyed the lighter touches, too, as in one panel, when a police car whips around in a wide U-turn. The taillights are drawn as one long pink arc to convey motion. Nice.

As the mob of zombies pursues our heroes, the bodies pile up, and the paranoia and desperation mount. How will they escape? Suddenly, the thrill ride—and my empathy for the yet-unzombified—came to a juddering halt. Ellis killed off the only character that meant anything to me.

Then, a big-bang climax wiped away any considerations of character or plot. Be prepared for an ending that might be described as a twisted little fuck-you to the whole world—a world that the nihilistic Ellis seems to find wholly unredeemable, time and again.

In the end, this wild ride of a story plays like one long, cynical note of doomed hopelessness from the writer. The zombies can only eat, kill, and rape (as viscerally as possible). The gore is worthy of an NC-17 rating—or the infamous "unrated" designation, realistically—if it were a film. And the ending speaks to Ellis' angry fixation on the poison that is humanity, so reminiscent for me of George Carlin's latest material - we're not just going to hell in a handbasket, we're already there. Where Carlin's bitterness is worked into a creatively brilliant cant, though, Ellis' plays out through characters and plots that ultimately, he himself doesn't really seem to care about. | Byron Kerman

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