Overview

Making The List

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The List (certainly not to be confused with Marvel’s current series of super-heroic one-shots!) is an original graphic novel written and self-published by Australian comics creator Paul Bedford with visuals from Henry Pop and Tom Bonin. Scheduled to be released in four parts, the first two volumes are available now (full details here). Broken Frontier takes a look at this uncompromising psychological thriller from down under.

The initial premise of The List is summarised on the back cover of the first volume thusly:

A typical suburban family is visited by an Arch Angel, who presents them with their birthright, The List, in exchange for the life of the Mother. The Mother agrees to be sacrificed, knowing the family will be held in high esteem by God for doing so. With the Mother dead, the Angel bequeaths The List to the Father, who embarks on his quest. The story opens with his return, seeking his promised reward: Enlightenment – a knowledge he will gain only by suicide. Before this, however, he passes The List down to his Son, who, like his Father, has the Commandments tattooed upon his torso before embarking on his own "holy" quest…

Deep breaths first… The List is not a comic for the squeamish or the easily disturbed. When I described it as "uncompromising" in my introductory paragraph I wasn’t being hyperbolic or dramatic. In fact, if anything, I was probably underplaying just what an uneasy and troubling read The List can often be. And this, I suspect, is exactly how writer Paul Bedford wants his audience to react. Strong horror storytelling, in any genre, should make you come away ever so slightly ashamed that you allowed yourself to become immersed in its wake, questioning yourself as to why that dark little recess of your mind found it entertaining in the first place and, let’s be honest, making you feel just that little bit depraved that you shared so much time in the company of such damaged human beings. If Bedford’s mission statement was to unsettle and disconcert then The List is a project that has ably met its objectives. This is take-no-prisoners psychological horror at its grimmest and is all the more effective for that defiant, defining stance.

The first two volumes chronicle the beginnings of the central character’s quest to fulfil a list of "commandments" handed down from his father, whose completion of a similar task has allowed his subsequent suicide to provide "enlightenment" as a reward. The catalyst for this road to ultimate self-awareness was the visitation of an angel to the family some years back when the List was first delivered to the Father. In exchange for this supernatural lifeplan to spiritual bliss, the family sacrificed their apparently willing and complicit mother. Although, perhaps tellingly, these events are recounted to us textually and not shown visually…

The commandments of the list are tattooed upon the Son’s body and, as each is completed, are removed from his torso in an act of self-mutilation. The List’s often oblique narrative approach means that, at this point, we remain somewhat in the dark as to the nature of this ritual journey the Son must undergo but this may, indeed, be a plot point in itself. The reader is never entirely sure as to which parts of the Son’s experiences in these two volumes are grounded in reality and which are delusional.

                       

Bedford adopts an economical storytelling style that is entirely suited to his subject matter and reflects the single-minded objectives of The List’s protagonist. Events are largely seen only from the perspective of the Son which makes his cold-blooded logic and certainty as to the veracity of his actions all the more chilling. As he stumbles from one bloody, violent encounter to the next in the pursuit of his objective – the fulfilment of the titular commandments – his dogged determination becomes the entire tortured focus of the reading experience. There’s something almost hypnotic about the way we follow this unhinged persona from page to bloody page.

Questions abound as to the true nature of events in these two volumes. Is this an examination of the paper-thin wall between obsession and reality? Is the Son really rebelling against a father figure? Are events truly supernatural or is this the Son’s deluded psychological metaphor for a more earthly or inner conflict? Why would a cardinal sin like suicide be the entry point to enlightenment? What are the commandments themselves and how are they being fulfilled?

It’s intriguing that graphic fiction that offers so little in the way of explanation, then, still manages to entice the reader into its world so fully. Due to the deliberately obscure style of Bedford’s narrative much about The List at this juncture is frustrating for the reader. But, as we all should recognise, the word "frustrating" in relation to serial storytelling can often equate to a significant positive in terms of the creator’s relationship with his audience. It means the reader is absorbed enough in the proceedings to want the answers and, in short, has been hooked by the material.

                      

I have found myself saying this a lot recently but The List is definitely a comic that rewards re-reading. There are layers to the mystery here and Bedford invites his readership to work a little harder in joining the dots than they may be used to. There’s certainly no spoon-feeding and many sequences remain very open to interpretation as to how they relate to the bigger picture. That’s by no means a creative weakness though. It’s a strength that further underlines the sense of unease and disquiet that this work evokes in the reader. There’s a dark emotional resonance to the The List, escalating with each volume, that is almost threatening in its delivery.

On the art front Henry Pop on pencils and Tom Bonin on inks do an outstanding job of visualizing the Son’s descent into apparent religious obsession. It’s hardly an original observation to note that black and white artwork is a perfect medium for psychological horror but Pop’s visceral and brooding layouts are a fitting complement to Bedford’s taut and unsparingly paced script. The use of sepia-tinted flashbacks to the family’s life before the Angel’s arrival provide a rosy and warm view of the characters’ pasts that may or may not prove just too good to be true.

Ultimately, The List’s success or failure will rest on its denouement and whether Paul Bedford pulls together the psychological strands of his tale into a satisfying whole. Volume 4’s conclusion will undoubtedly make or break it as a complete graphic novel. However, the first two volumes have me intrigued enough to want to continue this disturbing journey into one man’s fractured psyche to its (very?) bitter end. Few comics are as likely to make your eyes bleed just from reading them as The List but, such is its power to ensnare and transfix the reader, you’ll barely even notice the ocular haemorrhaging until the book has you well and truly trapped in its devious grasp.

The List volumes 1 and 2 are available now. Full details on how to order are here at the official website.

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