Rat God was a book I picked out of the review pile in the (metaphysical) Comic Bastards bullpen purely based on the title. Had I seen the cover, I probably would not have picked it up, but such is life. This book is the latest from elder statesman Richard Corben, and it continues in his chosen vein of unsettling horror, although not unsettling horror done particularly well. The book opens with Achak and his sister Mak-Kitito on the run from what I assume to be a rival tribe, the Tlingit. As they run through the forest, they come across horrifying markers and piles of bodies that may or may not move; when Mak-Kitito reaches the river, the narrative shifts dramatically to the 1920’s or so, where a man picks up a hitchhiker named Chuk, who strongly resembles Achak dressed in contemporary fashion. Clark Elwood, the driver, knows Chuk’s sister, Kito, from Arkham University, “a miniature Oxford on the Miskatonic.” When Chuk leaves Elwood, we follow Clark through the wilderness as he tries to find his way in unfamiliar territory.
I’m pretty sure I’m in the distinct minority, but I find Richard Corben distasteful. I don’t find his work offensive or anything, but I find his art off-putting in the extreme. It reads to me like the most serious of illustrations from a MAD magazine; very over-exaggerated features on every character, and over-the-top expressions at all times. That being said, this issue’s art worked for me when taken as a whole. There are several flashback scenes where Corben employs a sepia-tone color palette and rounded panel corners that pull off the change seamlessly, and the landscapes during Achak and Mak-Kitito’s escape at the beginning as well as the Native American totems and garb are all very exquisitely rendered. The cover is horrifying, but that’s pretty obviously the point, as it’s very well done. It looks a little dated, and Heavy Metal-ish from the 80s, but that’s Richard Corben for you.
The pacing of the story is what I have a strong issue with here. The most dramatic part of the comic happens in the middle of this issue, with the shift in time. This sort of pacing is apparently somewhat in vogue right now, especially in Warren Ellis and Jason Howard’s Trees. I don’t have a problem with it from an artistic sense--you’re an artist, you know where your story is going, you can pace it however you like. But if you’re an artist who’s in the business of selling a comic book every month, you don’t have the luxury of a novelist, who locks you in from page one until the very end, or even the TV series, where you get an update every week. The hook at the end of a comic serves a practical purpose, to make sure that you can pick up where you left off in 30 days-- “Oh, right, at the end of the last issue, Batman was dangling from a crumbling gargoyle while the Joker pissed on him.” If it’s a slow burn story, that’s all well and good, but if you’re an Eisner Hall of Fame Inductee writing a 5 issue miniseries, what’s stopping you from doing the whole story and releasing it as a hardcover graphic novel?
Throughout the story, Corben uses touchstone terms like “elder gods,” “Arkham” and “Miskatonic” that set this story fully within a Lovecraftian world of horrifying gods from before time, and the madness of men brought on by the decay of the natural world. There is little to no evidence of that in this story. What Lovecraft did with words is difficult to do in a visual medium (how does one actually draw a room where the corners are non-Euclidean and the sense of things fitting together actually does not exist?), but one thing Lovecraft did well was seed things early. From the very beginning of any of his stories, you get a sense of unease, and the pervading idea that things are not going to be okay. With Rat God, you get almost none of that. You get some panels of an insulted Native American gas station attendant, and some snowy pillars filled with skeletons. They’re disturbing panels, but they don’t build for a disturbing story.
Rat God gets away with seeming like a vanity project from Corben. It’s not technically or artistically bad, but at no point does the story seem inspired, or even interested in itself. There’s a page worth of bad expository panels when Clark meets Kito, that are the worst kind of “I just met you, so let me tell you everything about myself” expositions that Corben’s old enough to know better than to try to sneak past the readers. The whole book ends up taking a cue from this tone, ending up as a well-visualized but ultimately wooden and lifeless story.
Writer/Artist: Richard Corben Colors: Richard Corben & Beth Corben Reed Publisher: Dark Horse Comics Price: $3.99 Release Date: 2/4/15 Format: Mini-Series; Print/Digital