Care is the collected form of a three-part back up comic that ran in Prophet #34-#36 made by Matt Sheean and Malachi Ward. It tells the story of a society founded on an alien planet whose wellbeing depends on the health of a massive living organism that controls their civilizations atmosphere and ecosystem.
A smoky violet fog drifts over the city which signals the organisms vicennial demand for human sacrifice.
The thrust of the story is concisely established within the first page by an omniscient narrator. The first panels are of the organism excreting the purple smoke which quickly floods the panels beneath it. The yellow lights of the city can barely cut through the thick alien fog. Palo is chosen as the city’s sacrifice by a committee; the narrator remarks how Palo’s mother was also a sacrifice when he was young leading me to believe that perhaps he is from some sort of chosen sacrificial bloodline. The last panel frames his wife and son in a Byzantine “Madonna with child” pose against the creeping purple fog. A pale yellow lighting and teal shadow gives them dimension while also retaining a certain flatness that makes it feel as if we are looking at an old photograph, perhaps a snapshot of Palo’s past where his mother held him close while he himself struggled to make sense of the situation just as his son was doing now.
Palo is brought before the monstrous organism, the edges of its fleshy carapace smoking heavily into the sky. Palo “hasn’t been able to accept his fate” but puts up no fight to escape the creature or the committee, making me wonder if perhaps these dulled reactions are a side effect of the purple drift or maybe the symbiotic history between the people and the organism leave little room for defiance. Perhaps that is why they choose a sacrifice with a family, to keep the consequences of dissent high enough to ensure compliance.
The splash page of the organism is terrifying as the Verrs stand before it, the abject structure of its body marbled and rippled and piled together like the carrion run off from a slaughterhouse of giants. The heavy textured blacks swirl organically throughout the page making the organism’s flesh pucker and swell and in turn the eye spirals towards the center of the page to gaping hole. A dark entrance to the creature is marked by a symmetrical gate which emphasizes the differences and minuscule understanding the humans have of the creature, its chaotic form towering over and controlling them just because of its arcane inner workings. The gate erected before it is an attempt to demystify the organism, making the process of sending in a sacrifice more natural as if Palo was entering some sort of state park and yet the clinically holistic suits the two escorts wear reveal how little they understand the enigmatic being, fearing its age and perpetual mysticism.
Palo tells his wife he loves her and then his son to “live well”, foreboding last words to remind his only child that he could very well be chosen at anytime to enter the great organism and offers little comfort or explanation for his obedience. Despite Palo’s unease he enters the creature’s body which quickly saps him of his will and consciousness, the last sounds of his family dying out behind him as their figures turn to small, pale, barely-rendered silhouettes. Palo wakes up in a claustrophobic womb-like space and begins maniacally eating away at the pulsating walls, ingesting the creatures very flesh in a chaotic display of sickly reds, dull yellows and greens. The creature flushes him out of the dripping tunnel, washing him away in a torrent of putrid liquid which again use the same disorderly palette of colors from the previous page.
He surfaces and crawls from the salivary pond, following a trail of vertebrae and ribs into a dark gullet-like tunnel. The size of the spacious flesh pocket against the man’s tiny, pale blue figure allow us to focus on Palo as he slowly stumbles forward. The colors become more vivid and alluring here, the pinkpurples more sickly sweet with tinges of green highlighting what looks like gut flora while perforations in the fleshy ceiling open to reveal more misshapen holes as if something might be nesting in them.*
The organism is living within Palo now, urging him to work and clean as if he was a living kidney flushing out the refuse of this body. The color consistency is completely upset here, the mucousy walls flashing from orange to pink to yellow and his own form curdling from green to blue and back again. The unnatural effect the organism has on him causes severe imbalance both emotionally and mentally. The corpses he stumbles upon do not even jar him, too flooded with the organism’s will to even feel horrified. Whatever chemical in the air and in the matter he ate is driving him to move deeper and deeper into the massive form. Body horror often relies on boundary confusion, blurring the demarcation between the inside and outside, yourself and other. Palo’s position within the organism is terrifying not because he is within it but because the organism is exposed to him, vulnerable to Palo and other contagions that might enter it and this is what it wants. The idea of having the delicate machinery that makes up our anatomy open to all sorts of violation is one of man’s greatest nightmares. Experiencing an entity that is structureless and exposed and sits in the overlapping circles between ‘thing’ and ‘being’ is a different type of horror, an abject horror.
Palo, now aged to grayness, wanders through the organism’s spacious interior, everything now uniformly tinted a mild purpleblue with a tan-yellow to counter the hue and lead us through the page. Palo worries about madness from isolation but the colors he’s now given, normal skin tones, indicate a marked difference from the mania he experienced upon first entrance. Now the landscape of the organism’s organs are less frightening now and Palo has grown used to the inner workings of the creature. Hearing the voice of another, Palo floats on a yellow particle towards the noise until he finds a man trapped behind a membrane. The two speak for days until Anden dies while Palo is telling him about his son. Palo is suddenly overcome with despair, a softly painted image, almost like a glossy funeral portrait, of his wife and son (or his mother and him) flashing in his mind before it surrenders his body out of grief and regret.
A shot of the organism’s tuberous vents excreting the violet smoke into the black of the night bookend the start and end of Palo’s sentence. The story has an aimless sadness to it as it shows the terror of the unflinching cyclical habits of nature, rendering us down to simple cells in a larger body made to be used for greater or simply unexplained functions however unfufilling they might be. The non-diegetic narrator seems to emphasize the morose outlook the story contains but the omniscient quality of it was distancing making it difficult to identify with Palo. Like most abject horror, I engaged more with the visceral elements of the story like the organism which I think may have overtaken what was meant to be a more heart-rending story of Palo’s demise than staring into the face of that which disturbs order and identity and projects itself straight into the flesh. Given the focus of the narration and the ending lines it seems the tension lay in seeing the consequences of obeying the organism rather than disobeying it to fight for his life and his family. The clash between the narrators focus on Palo’s grief and the focus of the scenes with him passively traversing the organism causes a strange dissonance in narrative focus. The way he seems to immediately resign to the role of sacrifice leaves little for us to empathize with and rather causes us to take a clinic view of him, almost as if we were seeing him through an endoscope, a tiny germ.
I briefly asked about Matt and Malachi’s process which they said is just them “passing pages back and forth until it looks right.” The blending of their styles is remarkable and I’m hard pressed to find seams where their styles collide negatively. There is a subtle segmentation I notice when it comes to the splash pages where their sense of composition doesn’t mesh as easily but produces these balanced yet organic compositions of line and color. Malachi has a clean heavy weight to his brushwork in the vein of Thompson or R. Kikuo Johnson and his placement of shadows retains a Jeff Jones feel to them. Matt has a thinner line, possibly from pen or nib work, and wields texture masterfully over his figures and landscapes in a way thats recalls Moebius, Otomo and Boucq.
Both of their styles combined makes me think of a more economic Mirko Ilic or a gummier Roger Ibáñez with a hint of Ninõ when they hit their more grotesque splash pages. Color-wise they make some really interesting choices and keep the saturation of their palette toned down so that their more intense sequences pack a punch. Their palettes remind me of something I’d see in Yan Nascimbene’s austere illustrations or Witkacy’s oil paintings. All in all, this comic hits a lot of my sweet spots namely giant structureless meat beasts, fear, disgust, pseudoscientific power structures within societies and small personal dramas. Malachi and Matt seem to have a lot more comics planned to collaborate on and I can say I’m genuinely excited to see what they make next.
*Note: included in this print version is a page of only colors without lineart and I just have to comment that it is gorgeous and even more sickening to look at.