Rich Kreiner’s Yearlong Best of the Year: Treehouse of Horror

Posted by on February 13th, 2010 at 1:00 PM

Last month The Simpsons celebrated its 20th anniversary on the air. The new episode (itself nothing special) was followed by a Morgan Spurlock documentary on the program’s role around this country as popular entertainment and around the world as America’s cultural ambassador. But if you wanted to gauge the series’ impact on our own narrowed sphere, on that of comics, you couldn’t do better than consider last year’s Treehouse of Horror edited by Sammy Harkham.

The Simpsons Halloween annual is traditionally devoted to holiday stories and in-kind mayhem as created by folks not usually associated with the teevee show or the on-going Bongo Comics titles. During his talk in TCJ #300, Harkham relates to fellow publisher Jean-Christophe Menu that he wanted to use his guest editorship and his cultivated connections “to get cartoonists I think are brilliant and are often considered ‘obscure’ to make work that is smart and layered and awesome as their own work but for an all-ages audience, both kids and adults, both alternative comics fans and mainstream fans.”

Harkham’s Treehouse of Horror boasts an Ergot-tinged roster of “alternative” talent including C.F., Jordan Crane, Tim Hensley, and Kevin Huizenga among many others. For them, working for an all-ages audience and handling characters belonging to others clearly offered an unusual challenge; the fact that, as a whole, their Simpson stories did not match the brilliance and awesomeness of their “own” comics should come as a surprise to no one. The real news is how adaptable the program’s cast proves for their purposes and how much of their signature flair, skewed approach and untrammeled gusto survives in this Treehouse. As a whole, the comic harkens back to the rough figuration, the breathtaking novelty and easy-loping narrative of earliest Simpson appearances. Twenty years later, it is as surprising and transgressive as those original cartoons were then.

First among equals would have to be Ben Jones’ tale of shoddy bootlegs, character clones and bodily substitutions … disturbing concepts that, come to think of it, breezily overshadow the accompanying mass murders in the story. Jones, who can start from persuasive rendering of the Simpsons and their environs, very quickly plunges his victims into an ever-evolving day-glo world that is a clashing, amplified chromatic distortion only a step or two removed from “normal” Springfield coloration. Page arrangement of uniform panels is painfully rigid. Even more disconcertingly, black dividers replace gutters between panels. Renderings are stark, done in a uniform line. Color is flat, in high contrast, saturated without moderating shading or niceties. Character alterations and augmentations are ingenious, unsettling, downright creepy. Language grows gloriously stilted and foreign, as if dialogue had been subjected to the most woeful translation from one tongue to another. Oh, disorientation prevails.

As if you needed more, Jones builds his story upon cheap commercial exploitation, dangerous cut-rate products, naked human greed and the sickening abuses of international trade. (Poisonous Chinese toothpaste anyone?) By aiming at the belly and bothering the head, the story delivers real lingering discomfort; think of it as OD-ing on trick-or-treat candy, wolfing it down all the while knowing you’ve already had `way too much. It’s actually a relief to pass on to John Kerschbaum’s retelling of “The Three Little Pigs,” with its booger-bloated Ralph, its eyeball-chomping Monty Burns and its heroic vanquishers devoured by Goldilocks’ three zombie bears. Ha, ha, ha! Grotesque consumption! Hilarious. Where do they get their ideas?

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