Review: Treehouse of Horror #15

Posted by on December 11th, 2009 at 9:00 AM

The Simpsons’ Treehouse of Horror #15; Various; Sammy Harkham, ed.; Bongo Entertainment; 48 pp, $4.99

couch

Despite its title and the cover art, this magazine-length anthology doesn’t really feels like The Simpsons‘ annual Halloween extravaganza. It’s more like a series of drug-induced nightmares vaguely influenced by the sound of the television in the next room.  Indeed, Jordon Crane’s one-page story, “Blurst again,” shows Bart, a pipe at hand, looking blissfully stoned.  Then his head swells grotesquely, and explodes.

Crane’s piece is better than most, but typical in its approach.  The 10  stories collected here mostly avoid narrative coherence and linear development and instead follow a sort of dream logic.  Things happen, but not for any apparent reason or owing to any discernable cause.

And so: Mr. Burns rides a bicycle in a suit of armor; Bart, Lisa, and Milhouse (portrayed as teenaged punks) break into his abandoned mansion; Krusty the Clown is revealed as a member of a conspiratorial apocalyptic cult; a Lovecraftian monster arises to destroy the earth; and behind it all is some sort of advertising campaign.  That’s one story.

In another, an Olympian deity amuses himself by terrorizing poor fishermen (Homer and Bart).  They’re attacked by an anthropomorphic tsunami, then a giant angry onion ring, and then a tribe of warrior pickles.  They flee into the mountains, which eat them.

These stories don’t unfold so much as they burst —  like a boil, or like Bart’s head.  Bizarre event follows bizarre event until — until what?  Most of the tales don’t even end, they just stop.  And then another one starts.

All that said, the comic is far better than it could be.  (It does not, for example, cheat us by re-printing still frames from the animated show, with word balloons for the dialogue.)  And the art is remarkably good, featuring such talents as John Kerschboum and Jeffrey Brown.  The images are sometimes hilarious, occasionally disturbing, and in the case of Sammy Harkham’s crime-scene depiction of the Simpsons’ living room — both at once.  Harkham’s page, which also serves as the table of contents, is careful and creepy.  I just wish that it had set the standard for what was to follow.

It is interesting that the two best pages — Harkham’s and Tim Hensely’s — both center on the iconic Simpsons’ couch.  It is a standard horror technique to establish a comfortable, safe setting and then work to undermine it.  Satire works the same way, sometimes, which is why both fields are always potentially subversive, and may explain how The Simpsons got into this Halloween business in the first place.  At its best, horror suggests that it is the sense of security that is the illusion and the force of evil in the story is not so much introduced as revealed.  Perhaps there really is a monster under the bed — or, in this case, perhaps there’s always a severed head under the couch.

Harkham conveys this idea in a single image, but Hensley carries it further.  His story, “Cloud 13,” begins with Lisa telling her analyst, “Doc, I keep having the same nightmare.  Everyone in my family is trying to get to this couch. . . .”  What follows is a one-page parody of the television show’s opening sequence, ending with the family couch in an open grave.  The couch is the object of the characters’ desires, the goal of their efforts, the place they are all “trying to get to” — which is, in the end, revealed as death.  It is the hectic scramble of everyday life, hurling toward oblivion, that is the horror here.  Bart is “punished” by the school day; Homer is “poisoned” by his work; the marketplace reduces Maggie to the status of a commodity.  The school bell, the factory whistle, and the suburban home all serve as icons of anxiety.  The Simpsons are haunted by their own ghosts  — their sense of mortality, but also, perhaps, of lingering, unfulfilled possibility.

And the couch has another meaning as well.  At the beginning, in the psychologist’s office, as Lisa explains her dream, she is herself reclining on a couch — an identical couch.  She is already in the midst of death, but what she says is interestingly ambiguous:  “Everyone in my family is trying to get to this couch.”  The couch is death, but the couch is also the subconscious.  The struggle of daily life is also the struggle to face the horror of daily life.  The knowledge of death is also a kind of self-awareness.

Dream logic has its place, after all.

Image [©2009 Bongo Entertainment], drawn by Tim Hensley

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One Response to “Review: Treehouse of Horror #15”

  1. The Jordan Crane piece from Treehous of Horror is clearly a reference to Crumb’s classic “Stoned Agin” piece, which has been reproduced on countless t-shirts and posters through the ages. [this is it: http://i6.photobucket.com/albums/y230/plumber85/crumb_stoned_agin.jpg%5D The pop-cultural Crumb reference seems to be another layer in the hall-of-mirrors culture referencing going on in the Treehouse comic. To write it off as a drug-fueled fantasy completely misses the point. These are iconoclastic artists processing, warping, and extending the most iconic television cartoon of their generation.