Over the last few years Avatar Press has gained a well-deserved reputation as the home of the hardcore modern horror comic. Much like the fabled EC Comics of the 1950’s, publishers of (amongst many others) the legendary TALES FROM THE CRYPT, an undisputed classic which helped to define the genre and still retains much of its power to surprise and impress today, Avatar has assembled a stable of some of the finest writers and artists in the industry and allowed them to cut loose. While the Big Two, Marvel and DC, play it safe with the majority of their output, rarely straying out of the superhero genre and relying on brand loyalty to secure their piece of the ever-diminishing pie, Avatar is dispensing with boundaries and allowing its creators complete freedom. It’s a risky gambit; not only are they in danger of incurring the wrath of certain conservative sections of the media (those which tend to associate themselves with family values, religion and the right wing), they also risk falling foul of the indulgent excesses (or simple shortcomings) of their various creators (as was the case with IDW’s 12 DAYS OF NIGHT ongoing series, which suffered from Steve Niles’ flimsy plotting and nonexistent characterisation, and folded after only a dozen issues). Happily, Avatar has enjoyed more successes than failures, chief among them Irish raconteur Garth Ennis’ gleefully brutal CROSSED series, which has made the successful transition from miniseries to ongoing title. Noted indie writer/artist David Lapham (of STRAY BULLETS fame) is one of CROSSED’s most frequent contributors, and has since graduated to his own book, FERALS, with Brazilian artist Gabriel Andrade. The first two volumes, comprising issues #1-12, have now been released, and are well worth a look.
FERALS is horror unleashed. Like CROSSED, anything goes, and nothing is taboo. On the surface it’s a werewolf story, but one which makes significant changes to the established lore. For one thing, the disease of lycanthropy is venereal in nature, deriving from a gland secreted by the female of the species. It turns men into clawed, hirsute Wolverine-like beserkers, and women into nymphomaniacs who enjoy the roughest species of rough sex. Cue lashings of nudity and an uncomfortable degree of consensual sexual violence (that said, I’m not sure what would constitute a comfortable degree...) There are also more conventional werewolves in the mix, which are created by drinking the creatures’ blood, and spend all of their time in bestial form, tearing innocent bystanders apart in the most gloriously graphic ways imaginable. Between the fisticuffs/fucking and the extreme bloodletting, it’s a wonder there’s any room left to tell a story.
To his credit, Lapham spins a decent yarn. The first book is essentially a murder mystery, as lead character and small town sheriff (and asshole) Dale Chesnutt endeavours to hunt down the monster that killed his girlfriend and best friend, and to extricate himself from a potential murder rap. Throw in a couple of oddball TWIN PEAKS-influenced FBI agents and a backwoods hillbilly wolf cult, and it’s a highly entertaining ride. The second volume delves more deeply into the cult’s origins, and is a little slower-paced than the first, but still contains more disembowelments and explicit sex scenes than the entire SAW franchise. It’s not exactly Shakespeare, but Lapham makes a decent stab at characterisation, and the breakneck pace of the narrative, not to mention the buckets of blood ‘n’ guts, are more than enough to sustain our interest.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about FERALS is the artwork. Not just the quality (which is high), but the rate at which Andrade manages to produce it. Despite the fact that Andrade both pencils and inks his own work, and produces all of the many variant covers Avatar is renowned for, FERALS managed to maintain a monthly schedule over its first year. This is a remarkable feat, and speaks to the artist’s work ethic. That he manages to produce such effective visuals is the icing on the cake. The artwork is both detailed and clear, making it easy to follow and demonstrating an excellent storytelling ability. His characters are recognisably individual and his werewolves commendably horrific. And he certainly doesn’t shy from the violence, be it perpetrated by monsters of the human or supernatural variety.
The highest compliment I can pay FERALS is that it fits nicely into Avatar’s line-up of innovative, extreme horror. The concept is a strong one, the lead character refreshingly flawed, and the pace relentlessly brisk. It’s sometimes an uncomfortable read, but that’s horror for you. Part mystery, part creature feature, it’s an intriguing modern take on lycanthropes (one that’s infinitely superior to such lacklustre recent cinematic efforts as THE HOWLING: REBORN, WEREWOLF: THE BEAST AMONG US, STRIPPERS VS WEREWOLVES and JACK AND DIANE), with enough graphic nudity and grand guignol gore-letting to keep even the most bloodthirsty horror fan entertained.