Okay, this week’s topic isn’t exactly about comics, but it does deal with finding inspiration from other mediums to strengthen one’s work. Yeah, let’s go with that.
Tonight will see the conclusion of one of the most interesting and surreal shows on cable, NBC’s Hannibal. With a magnificent cast, clever writing and excellent cinematography and sound, Hannibal not only was one of the most disturbing shows in the last few years, but in a great many ways eclipsed the classic Silence of the Lambs film. It was also, in all the best ways, a melodrama and a comedy while also being a psychological thriller.
Hannibal was a show that embraced its pretentiousness. It was able to utilize horror and psychology to help break down the elements of a killer and the darkness in humanity, but it was also incredibly self-aware. As Doctor Chilton said in the third season: “You with your fancy allusions and fussy aesthetics. You will always have niche appeal” which was as much an examination of the show’s elegant details as well as a cold hard fact about its inability to cater to a wider audience, unlike more common horror like The Walking Dead.
In many cases, Hannibal was a modern day play of the Grand Guignol. Popularized by a late 19th century Parisian theater of the same name, Grand Guignol emphasized the visceral and realistic nature of violence and mutilation and melodramatic elements. It was a great influence on the Italian horror and crime scene from the 1960s to the 1980s and Hannibal carried its traditions into the new millennium.
So, you’re probably wondering, what does this have to do with comics?
Well, it’s more an influence subject, really. One thing that Hannibal did incredibly well was create atmosphere. Now, it does have a couple of advantages over comics by the fact that it’s a television show. It has actual movement instead of the illusion of movement. It has sound, both musical and non-musical. It has actor reaction. Comics do have an advantage in that their atmosphere is limited only by artist imagination and doesn’t have to rely on set budget. An artist that creates a proper atmosphere can suck a reader in and never let them go.
In my opinion, the horror/psychological comic that comes the closest to a similar understanding of atmosphere is Nailbiter by Joshua Williamson and Mike Henderson. Now, I have only read the first volume of Nailbiter. It’s the story about a town called Buckaroo, Oregon that has given birth to sixteen of the most reprehensible serial killers in the world, the latest of which is the serial killer Edward “Nailbiter” Warren.
It is the atmosphere and Grand Guignol elements that Nailbiter contains, the slightly sick and twisted sense of humor it has within, that really makes the horror more visceral when it happens. While the concept of a small town with secrets is a well-worn concept, it is the skill of Williamson and more specifically, Henderson and colorist Adam Guzwoski, that are able to craft the surrealness in something that should be mundane. Whether it’s a close up shot of a character cutting into a steak or utilizing the first-person perspective of a serial killer slicing their victim or flickering lights to convey motion in a motionless medium, it allows the backgrounds and locations be the true villains of the work.
Hannibal and the Grand Guignol, the ability to synthesize horror with a touch of melodrama and comedy. All of this made one of the most compelling television shows of the last few years and it is definitely a show that should be studied by creators in other mediums. Here’s to you, you dark, wonderful thing you.