The GeeksverseLeaving Proof 212 | Spotlight on “grindhouse comics”

Leaving Proof 212 | Spotlight on “grindhouse comics”
Published on Wednesday, January 29, 2014 by
Join us after the jump as we embark on an exercise to define the grindhouse comic and trace its history over the past half-century.   

In recent years, it has become common for promotional copy to describe comics featuring horror, sci-fi, fantasy, or crime elements and a cheeky, self-aware sense of humor as “grindhouse comics.” But what does it mean for a comic book to be of the grindhouse variety? Is the grindhouse comic category just an arbitrary, faddish marketing term, or is it possible to talk about it as an actual genre, with its own history and a set of codifying tropes and consistent features that can be identified across multiple examples?

A brief review of grindhouse’s roots

Russ Meyer's Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965) is one of the most well-known examples of grindhouse cinema.

Russ Meyer’s Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965) is one of the most well-known examples of grindhouse cinema.

Before we can discuss grindhouse comics, it’s important to briefly review the roots of the grindhouse style, if you will, and those roots are to be found in cinema. It’s become common practice to conflate grindhouse films—movies shown in 20th century inner-city and red-light district theaters—with so-called exploitation films—motion pictures that aim to achieve outsized commercial success primarily by “exploiting” pop culture trends or audiences’ interest in lurid subject matter. However, not all the films exhibited in grindhouse theaters were exploitation films nor were all exploitation films shown exclusively in grindhouse theaters: For instance, many, and perhaps a majority, of film critics and historians would classify films distributed by major studios like Dirty Harry, Deliverance, and Jaws as fitting the exploitation film mold. Still, there is a large intersection between the two categories, and in everyday conversation, it is no great sin to consider the term “grindhouse film” as referring to an amorphous collection of independently-produced, low-budget, limited distribution films primarily from the 1960s and 1970s that frequently featured indulgent portrayals of sex and violence, as well as elements of ribaldry, horror, and science-fiction.

It’s not too gross of an oversimplification to say that grindhouse films, as we’ve colloquially defined the term, looked a certain way and tackled certain subject matter for reasons partly rooted in the interaction between economic circumstance and various city and state prohibitions against the showing of “immoral” films. (Contrary to the common misconception, small independent film production outfits in the United States were not subject to the Hays Code or its successor, the MPAA classification ratings system, but exhibitors did have to adhere to local public decency laws.) Low budgets meant less-than-polished direction, camera work, editing, and performances. Producers also walked a fine line with the content, pushing for as much sensationalistic sex, violence, and/or gore as municipal and state laws would allow.

The rise of home video and the decline of grindhouse theaters in the 1980s all but eliminated what some might call the “traditional” grindhouse film, but the guerrilla filmmaker/huckster spirit which informed the genre would find expression in any number of low-budget, direct-to-video productions. These days, the proliferation of the Internet, alternative funding and monetization models, and the lowered cost of professional quality digital filmmaking equipment and software continues to change our conception of contemporary grindhouse film. [An aside: Fairly recent, relatively big-budget films like 2007’s Grindhouse (budget: $67 million) and 2009’s The Last House on the Left (budget: approx. $33 million)—a remake of a 1972 exploitation-horror film directed by Wes Craven—have been advertised as modern grindhouse films, but their major studio backing, slick production values, and wide release roll-outs make me wonder if they’re grindhouse in only the loosest, marketing-speak sense.]

Media parallels and divergence

So what is a grindhouse comic? Can we actually formulate criteria for a grindhouse comic genre that mirrors the social, creative, and economic circumstances that helped shape the popular concept of the grindhouse film? Certainly, the comics industry of the 20th century had its own version of the various moral guidelines that governed cinema in the Comics Code Authority. And just as the quasi-censorship of the Hays Code and municipal and state morality laws drove grindhouse films to the margins of what could be considered mainstream or popular cinema, so did the Comics Code Authority force publishers of the more graphic crime, horror, fantasy, sword-and-sorcery, humor, romance, and science-fiction comics to either stop publishing altogether or find commercial and creative workarounds to keep their products in circulation. Companies like EC Comics, Warren Publishing, and Marvel Comics (through its Curtis Magazines imprint), for example, started putting comics material intended for mature readers in “comics magazines” that featured a combination of comics stories and text-only short stories and feature articles—the mixed format and larger page dimensions meant that they qualified as magazines, and thus did not fall under the purview of the Comics Code Authority. The underground comix scene also provided another venue for more adult comics material, albeit one which had a smaller readership compared to the comics magazine set.

The contemporaneous parallels of 1960s and 1970s grindhouse film and a putative grindhouse comics category from the same period do begin to diverge when we start talking about how the economic context figures in the creative process. Grindhouse films are frequently held up as examples of slapdash editing and amateur camera work. Did the grindhouse filmmakers of the 1960s and 1970s deliberately go out of their way to make bad-looking cinema? In the majority of instances, I would venture to say that they didn’t, and that they created the best that they could, given what they had to work with in terms of their limited means—and some of the most skilled and resourceful among them even managed to transcend those limitations to create smartly improvised, beautifully-shot and composed cult classics.

Warren Publishing's Vampirella horror/fantasy anthology did not need Comics Code Authority approval because it was technically a magazine, not a comic book..

Warren Publishing’s Vampirella horror/fantasy anthology did not need Comics Code Authority approval because it was technically a magazine, not a comic book. (Pictured: Vampirella #36, cover-dated September 1974)

Comics, by comparison, aren’t subject to the same restrictions. It’s definitely possible that a higher page-rate could get a comic (or comics magazine) a better, more experienced grade of artist, but the quality of a comics’ visual storytelling, as well as the rendering of characters, props, costumes, and “special effects” are not directly impacted by budget the way they are in film production. The best examples of comics illustration, visual design, and sequential art found within the pages of comics magazines like Warren’s Eerie, Creepy, and Vampirella; EC’s Mad (the lone post-Comics Code Authority survivor of its once vibrant line); Curtis Magazines’ The Deadly Hands of Kung-Fu, Unknown Worlds of Science Fiction, and Savage Tales; and sporadically published underground comix fare like Zap Comix could easily stand up to the quality of the work found in the best mainstream comics of the day.

That being said, I do think that the mature themes and the push-and-pull of moralistic pressures and the drive for free, creative expression that inform and are shared by grindhouse film and the subset of horror, crime, sci-fi, humor, and fantasy comics marginalized by the Comics Code Authority allows us to define a somewhat nebulous, “classic” grindhouse comics category that encompasses both comics magazines and the underground comix scene of the 1960s all the way to the early 1980s.

The grindhouse comic today

Today’s mature readers-rated sci-fi, fantasy, horror, crime, erotic, and humor comics aren’t subject to the same level of formal, industry-wide self-censorship as their forebears (although as you’ll see in our discussion of Image Comics’ Crawl Space: XXXombies below, today’s grindhouse comics face the threat of censorship on a different front) and no longer need to find semantic loopholes to justify their place on comic book shop shelves. The Comics Code Authority has been irrelevant for the past few years as individual publishers have developed their own internal rating systems: DC Comics and Archie Comics were the last major publishers to opt out of Comics Code participation in 2011, rendering it effectively defunct. Organizations such as the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund have also done a commendable job in fighting for creators’ rights to free expression through their work, as well as ensuring older readers’ access to “mature readers”-rated material, as allowed for by local laws.

But while the economic and social context may be different, it hasn’t stopped modern comics creators and publishers from promoting their comics using the same “forbidden fruit” appeal of the grindhouse label. Below is a short list of recent publications from notable, Diamond-distributed publishers that meet the grindhouse comics criteria with regards to their subject material and their promotion. It is by no means intended to be comprehensive—the list represents a fraction of a fraction of the rapidly growing grindhouse and grindhouse-like comics population—but it is offered as a way for column readers to familiarize themselves and find their footing in such a loosely defined grouping of comics.

Crawl Space: xxXombies (2007, Image Comics)

csxxx1coverCrawl Space: xxXombies by Rick Remender, Tony Moore, and Kieron Dwyer had a revived run of notoriety early last year, as it was among the Image Comics titles that comiXology preemptively removed from its iOS app alongside Saga #12 based on the digital comics distributor’s interpretation of Apple’s iOS app system content guidelines. ComiXology restored these Image titles to its iOS app after readers’ widespread public complaints over corporate censorship, but the reprieve was short-lived for all but the high-profile Saga #12: A repeat review of Crawl Space: xxXombies‘ contents led comiXology to pull it from its iOS app for a second time, presumably for good (although it remains available for reading on comiXology’s website).

ComiXology deservedly took a lot of flak for its somewhat clumsy handling of the Image Comics censorship case, but in the end, I can’t really blame the company for pulling the horror-comedy comic off its iOS app. It doesn’t take a particularly conservative reading of Apple’s app store guidelines (circa 2010) to see that the comic might be breaking the rules on objectionable content (“might” being the operative word here). After all, Crawl Space: xxXombies features implied and explicit depictions of sexual assault played straight and for (pretty dark) humor, zombie babies, zombie babies with their heads being smashed against tables, zombie porn stars dining on select parts of the male anatomy, and other things that could conceivably fall under Apple’s definition of “excessively objectionable or crude content” or content that is “designed to upset or disgust users.”

What I find problematic is the vague wording of Apple’s guidelines. How does Apple measure whether or not content is “excessively objectionable or crude”? Regardless of the merits one might accord to Crawl Space: xxXombies (I didn’t care for the story all that much, although I think the art is very good and there were some genuine “WTF?!” moments that had me laughing out loud), the implicit assertion in Apple’s content guidelines that any media that can be considered objectionable or upsetting cannot be shared and distributed on its app-driven device ecosystem leads down a dangerous, dangerous path to a way of thinking that is far more disturbing and worrying in its real-world implications than anything that can be found in Remender, Moore, and Dwyer’s porn-meets-zombies comic.

Moon Lake (2010 and 2013, BOOM!/Archaia)

The brainchild of stand-up comedian, filmmaker, and Tony Award-winning actor Dan Fogler, the sci-fi/horror/fantasy comics anthology Moon Lake is Fogler’s attempt to turn his 2009 “modern grindhouse” film Hysterical Psycho into a multimedia franchise, an idea he explained to our very own Joe Milone in a 2010 interview:

Moon_Lake_v2_GN_Cover.1I directed this movie called Hysterical Psycho. It will be out soon, around Halloween time. It’s like [Alfred] Hitchcock Presents on acid, meets Evil Dead. I wanted to make a franchise out of it, and a great way to do it would be to go through the comic realm and then back through to movies and TV. So that became Moon Lake, and that’s the universe that Hysterical Psycho takes place in. These kids go up to this region up north, which is inherently evil called Moon Lake, and it’s been that way since the beginning of time. It’s a crossroad; a lot of universes converge there. Parallel universes, worm holes from evil places, go there. It’s kind of a grand central station for all this. It kind of becomes the battle ground for the end of the world. We have all these stories from the prehistoric time to the present time that you can tell from Moon Lake. So that’s Moon Lake. That’s the graphic novel that’s coming out, and it will be ready for New York Comic Con. It’s an anthology which is like my baby.  It’s kind of like “The Twilight Zone” on THC; it’s really cool.

[Click here to read our preview of Moon Lake, Vol. 2]

SuicideGirls (2011, IDW)

suicidegirls02coverIDW’s SuicideGirls miniseries actually features a sci-fi action/adventure plot written by SuicideGirls “adult lifestyle brand” (or “feminist-friendly alt porn collective,” if you prefer) co-counder Selena “Missy Suicide” Mooney, veteran horror comics scribe Steve Niles (30 Days of Night), and actress and screenwriter Brea Grant (Heroes, The Real Housewives of Horror, Best Friends Forever), which probably caught more than a few readers by surprise given the erotica theme suggested by the title’s pin-up style covers.

The comic can probably be best described as “Danger Girl with actual nudity,” and is listed here both for its sexploitation-style grindhouse sensibilities and as a reminder of the curious, brief time not too long ago when the SuicideGirls were pervasive in geek and comics culture, even figuring in a running gag in Warren Ellis and Stuart Immonen’s Nextwave: Agents of H.A.T.E. (Marvel Comics) and their own Diamond Comics Distributor Top Five-published miniseries.

[Click here to check out our picture of the SuicideGirls’ Tita Suicide and Rydell Suicide (who, incidentally, appeared in a movie called Mike Pecci’s Grindhouse Shorts) at Fan Expo Vancouver 2012]

Grindhouse: Doors Open at Midnight (2013, Dark Horse Comics)

Grindhouse: Doors Open at Midnight is writer Alex De Campi and her cast of artist collaborators’ love letter to grindhouse cinema. Each issue of the series features nods to the films fans most readily associate with the genre. The first standalone two-issue story arc, the uproarious Bee Vixens from Mars, features buxom villains who look like they walked off the set of Russ Meyer’s Invasion of the Bee Girls and a protagonist whose design is inspired by They Call Her One Eye‘s Madeleine. The second story-arc, Prison Ship Antares, combines the “women in prison” exploitation film conceit with kooky sci-fi.

Garcia_Grindhouse_DOaM

Oh, and while I haven’t re-read the comics to confirm it, my first impression is that both stories pass the Bechdel Test, for whatever that’s worth.

[Click here to read our review of Grindhouse: Doors Open at Midnight #1]

Scum of the Earth (2013, Action Lab/Danger Zone)

While it shares its title with Herschell Gordon Lewis’ infamous 1963 “roughie” film, Scum of the Earth by writer Mark Bertolini and artist Rob Croonenborghs, at least with its first two issues, seems to be more of a piece with the grindhouse subgenre mash-up stylings of the aforementioned Grindhouse: Doors Open at Midnight than the violent sexploitation of its filmic namesake, combining “hixploitation” caricatures and graphic violence with a sci-fi mystery.

scumoftheearth_greatservice

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