Making The List - A Reprise
Lowdown - Article
Posted by Andy Oliver on May 24, 2011
Last month Australian comics creator Paul Bedford came to the end of a long, dark journey with the publication of the third, and final, volume of his horror psychodrama graphic novel The List. Broken Frontier has followed Paul down this twisted path over the years and was on hand as the book reached its terrifying, final act...
It’s customary form at the beginning of a review to give a succinct, spoiler-free synopsis of the subject matter in question before launching into the requisite critical analysis that traditionally follows. That The List stubbornly defies even this basic tenet of the reviewer’s art is testament to its uncompromising narrative style; this is sequential art that expects you, the reader, to use up as much mental energy in interpreting its themes and structure as its creators expended in constructing it.
So how then to describe it? Superficially at least, The List is a disturbing horror story that follows the devastating impact on a normal family of an apparent supernatural visitation. An angelic offer of “enlightenment” through spiritual self-awareness is initially dependent on the willing ritual sacrifice of the family’s mother. Following this, the focus of the first two volumes was on the angel’s other instruction that, first the family’s Father and then central character the Son, had to in turn undergo quests to fulfil a list of commandments. Said commandments are etched upon the Son’s body and, as each is completed, are removed from his torso in an act of self-mutilation. Only when each one has been scored out from his flesh can he kill himself like his father before him and achieve the proffered otherworldly enlightenment.
However, and this is where summarising The List’s plot becomes a problem, the quest itself over the first two volumes was ambiguous on a number of levels; not least of which was that the readership was unsure of both the exact nature of the Son’s mission and how his acts of often random and brutal violence furthered it. Muddying the waters more, we were never sure whether the presented supernatural elements were literal or delusional, nor whether the sepia-tinted flashbacks to the family’s happy life before the angel’s visitation had any basis in fact. A challenging read indeed, and that’s before we take the gore into account…
In this third and final volume, the Son’s list forces him to confront a dark chapter of his own past, as he seeks to remove the commandment of “REVENGE” from his torso, before we move on to the climactic closing stages of this three-volume arc. Bedford’s major revelation in this instalment, of a truly horrific event during the Son’s childhood, is tautly paced and has a filmic quality in its composition. Henry Pop’s stark black and white visuals once more ably back up Bedford’s chilling script. Indeed, the high production values of The List are such that Pop’s art is imbued with a blackness so deep that it threatens to swallow the reader up; a most appropriate sensation given the all-consuming madness inherent in Bedford’s tale.
Back in 2009, when I reviewed those first two volumes of The List, I opined that, ultimately, no matter how intriguing that initial chapters were, such was the nature of Bedford’s psychological thriller that the success of the project as a whole would rest entirely on the efficacy of that third, and concluding, volume’s denouement. This, I must now admit, was an oversight, predicated on the false premise that the events of The List actually needed a complete explanation. I could no more demand an objective and all-encompassing definition of insanity than expect Bedford to compromise the book’s style and approach with a neat, pat ending that spoonfed the readership the answers. That would have been something of a thematic cop-out to a series that has almost delighted in contriving an air of dramatic obfuscation.
That’s not to say that from the tense finale the reader cannot finally infer some conclusions about the events of all three volumes; certain elements do take on a much greater clarity. But there is still an air of ambiguity to The List that is both frustratingly teasing and yet, somehow, wholly appropriate. It’s this narrative haziness that allows each individual reader to interpret the story and take from it what they will. Some may find The List to be a damning indictment on religion and the sinister dangers of obedient, blind faith. Others may enjoy it on a more surface level and perceive it simply as a slightly more sophisticated slasher story. The one guaranteed shared experience that all readers of The List will have, though, is that none of them will find the experience of reading it an easy one to forget.
The finale to The List was as harrowing a read as I expected from the set-up of the early volumes. Days later, I’m still digesting the symbolism of its emotionally-charged ending, dissecting events and reinterpreting their meaning over and over. A rare phenomenon these days for someone who finds it near impossible to remember from one month to the next what happened in the previous issues of the few super-hero books he still reads. Charged with a brutal, creative passion, The List is an unyielding, tenacious work that revels in immersing its audience in an orgy of uncomfortable, ghoulish voyeurism. Traumatic, disturbing, yet refreshingly honest, this is horror comics at their most unflinching.
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