What Remains of EC Comics

What Remains of Edith Finch (2017) is a celebrated and ambitious narrative game about family memories, which has been likened to weird fiction (Gaiman, Mieville, etc.) and to magical realism (García Márquez, etc.). It also serves as a celebration of the affordances of videogames, and their ability to remediate previously existing media. In this article, I’d like to focus on one of these remediated items, a horror comic book, and what it can tell us both about the game and about the cultural memories of evokes.

At the core of What Remains of Edith Finch is the exploration of the now abandoned family house, with locked rooms serving as fully-furnished memorials to departed family members. These sections take the form of a “walking simulator”, a first-person exploration of a richly rendered environment, with minimal interactions (most books can’t be opened, most objects can’t be picked up, etc.), relying extensively on narrative design to offer information about the previous occupants.

However, the most distinctive moments in the game are triggered by the discovery of written documents, drawings or objects, which serve as gateways to playable memories, during which the player adopts the perspective of the deceased. For instance, a poem triggers a long scene in which the player takes the role of a rebellious son, playing with a kite in a spiteful attempt to avoid attending his father’s remarriage. Here, as elsewhere in the game, the written words linger in the three-dimensional world, scattered by player-controlled kite as the tragic poem unfolds. The player has a degree of agency – looking around, moving the kite – but the passage can only end with the death of the son. Other stories are told in minimally interactive scenes – what Marie-Laure Ryan called “exploratory interactivity” (2005) – through a Viewmaster or a flipbook, reproducing the respective affordances and textures of these technologies.

Simulated Viewmaster in What Remains of Edith Finch

While I enjoyed these instances, and the care with which the game reproduce their respective textures, I was especially struck by the appearance of a comic book as the trigger for one of these memory capsules. The story in question – the 4th capsule which the player encounters – is that of Barbara Finch (1944-1960), a child actor who looked like Shirley Temple then died at 16.

Barbara became a child star thank to her scream, then faded away. She lived in a room filled with memorabilia of her brief acting career, including posters, dolls, reels and many other artifacts, which seem to span 20th-century commercial culture, from the 1930s to the 1990s (the packaging of the doll on the screencap below is distinctly anachronistic). The centerpiece of the room, however, is a comic book through which the player gets to partake into Barbara’s mysterious demise,

Dolls and posters in Barbara’s room

Shirley Temple – Curly Top movie card – 1935

 When interacting with it, the books fills the screen, offering a clear view of is cover, then flips open to offer something close to the “guided view” introduced by Comixology and other electronic comic book readers. Clicks and button presses move the player/reader from panel to panel in a moment of purely exploratory interactivity.

Tales from the Crypt #24 (1951) and Dreadful Stories

Tales from the Crypt #24 (1951) and Dreadful Stories

Though the comic book is cover-dated October 1961, its cover and content obviously refer to the horror comics of the previous decade, and in particular to the most famous examples thereof, the horror comics published by EC (on that historiographical bias, see Watt-Evans 2010 and Wandtke 2018). In any case, horror comics such as these did not exist between the 1954 backlash against comics and the early 1980s in the Direct Market, though black-and-white horror magazines (such as Warren’s Creepy and Skywald’s Nightmare) did return after 1964. The chronological vagueness on display in the room itself is thus reflected in the in-game comic book, and made significantly more visible by its centrality in the narrative and gameplay.

Visually, Dreadful Stories is a poor pastiche 1950s (or even early 1960s) comics. The thin and stiff lines of the individual panels wouldn’t have printed well on the cheap paper of the time, the coloring is obviously digital, and the general layout of the pages use wide panels that fit a computer screen but were virtually unused at the time. Rather than emulating a specific, historically-situated style, the game goes for a broader “comics” style – line art, spotted blacks, visual simplification and flat colors – not unlike the ubiquitous the ubiquitous “comics” filters offered by photo-editing apps. The complex technological and economic constraints which made these choices the default option for comic books (Molotiu 2020) are flattened into a simplified style. Furthermore, the stiff animated page turn and the glossy white paper all suggest the feel of modern reprints of these comics rather than anything resembling the original works.

Edith Finch - Dreadful Stories, comics page

Edith Finch – Dreadful Stories, comics page

The comic book includes an ad-page, presumably there to provide some verisimilitude to the artifact. This is a familiar strategy, found in various objects which seek to provide a nostalgic of revionist take on older comics ; it can be found for instance Romero’s Creepshow (1982), a filmed hommage to EC Comics, or in Alan Moore’s 1963 (1993), a comic book reimagining the 2nd wave of superhero comics. In What Remains of Edith Finch, however the fake ads further confuse the chronology of the in-game comic books, as the advertised patches point to the 1970s – with Easy Rider and Woodstock references – rather than 1961, when the fictional comic book was supposedly released, or the 1950s.

Edith Finch – Dreadful stories – ad page

I was acutely aware of these inaccuracies and reconstructions when playing the game, yet found the experience meaningful, shedding light on the horror comics themselves but also on their persistent memory in popular culture.

First, the presence of the horror host (“old Jack”) revitalizes that established feature of horror comics. The game makes good use of the host as a liminal presence suggesting intermedial ambiguity and self-awareness, not unlike the choices made by Romero and King in Creepshow. The metaleptic potential of the host in comics (and in radio, since this is where the device originated) is thus expanded to include meta-mediatic ambiguity, on the threshold of remediation.

In 1950s horror comics and still in later examples, the host may serve as mere introductory devices, but they also frequently comment upon it, provide its punchline or gleefully undercut their ending.  […]  In Creepshow, the host […] serves as a bridge between the framing narrative and the various segments, but also between the static image of the comics and the filmed segments. Though silent and fairly subdued compared to its print model, the host exists between the various types of images found in the movie, as a filmic equivalence of the ontological uncertainty to be found in the comics. (Labarre forthcoming)

Dreadful Storie is at first a purely exploratory experience, one which invites the player to stand back, to watch and to read, until the content of the frame suddenly becomes playable: the exploratory interactivity gives way to a form of ontological interactivity, in which they player meaningfully interacts with the environment. This unexpected break is an effective one, as it emphasizes boundary breaking and genuine surprise. It also forces the player to become aware of their own body: the physical position of the reader is very different from that of the 1st-person player. This is brilliant way to reconnect the act of playing to horror as a body genre, as suggested by Linda Williams. The break also reveals the function of the visual compromise to be found in the comics page, for the filters applied to the three-dimensional environment – with contour lines and flat color – bridge the gap between the two moments.

Strikingly, the playable segment uses the main musical theme from John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978). The reference is again anachronistic, but it calls to attention to what we could call a genealogy of horror – from EC, to the slasher, to first-person horror games (“They’re coming to get you Barbara,” is also of course the most quoted line from Night of the Living Dead (1968)). In doing so, What Remains of Edith Finch bring back horror comics in the broader logic of horror, rather than foregrounding their medium-specificity. Bernard Perron argues that horror relies on a tension between filmmaker-driven moments and horror-driven moments:

Scenes like these [‘don’t go into that room’] are so fundamental to horror and suspense films because they establish a rhythm of alternating control over the story: exposition, set-up, tension, pay-off. The filmmaker’s voice is mostly active during sequences of exposition, the audience’s voice in sequences of tension. The filmmaker stops delivering his version of events and invites the audience to formulate their own version of what’s going to happen next. (Perron 2018)

The game emphasizes this division and what is arguably a fundamental mechanism in the horror genre, by framing it as a shift in media and in affordances, by forcing the player to incorporate the shift. In doing so, it also forces a very real shift in perspective, as the potential victim shifts from being an object to being a subject. This is an effective and affective twist, especially since in both What Remains of Edith Finch and EC Comics, the short narratives usually end with the death of the main protagonist. Bozdog and Galloway, in their article dedicated to the literary intertext in the game, reach a similar conclusion:

The design choices, the small screen size for example, only allow space for essential and concise narrative information. This is balanced with a compelling and unique visual style and gameplay. Barbara’s story engages with some established horror tropes while at the same time creatively challenging them. (Bozdog and Galloway, 2020)

In addition to challenging intermedial horror tropes, the game subverts an essential feature of videogames, horrific or not, which is the idea that survival is possible and desirable. In What Remains of Edith Finch, Barbara is dead even before the story begins, but the player is invited to contemplate the possibility of an escape, of a different outcome. Barbara’s final demise becomes all the more crushing.

What remains, then, of EC Comics?

At first glance, the game offers but a shallow engagement with these comics: a cover, a narrative structure, a loose historical framework, remnants of an aesthetic. EC comics a a minimal signifier, desiccated remains without any connection to their historical context or to the backlash which they helped trigger. In effect, though, the game embrace these comics as the basis for a brilliant moment, that reconnects them to a broad genealogy of horror. It is interested in comics not has historical artifacts, but as components in a broad media ecology, a useful way to thematize the shift from subject to object in the horror genre.

What remains in the conviction that these comics still work, not as nostalgic items – as in the case of the viewmaster – but as powerful delivery mechanisms for fiction.

 

References

Bozdog, Mona, and Dayna Galloway. 2020. “Worlds at Our Fingertips: Reading (in) What Remains of Edith Finch.” Games and Culture 15, no. 7 (November 1): 789–808. https://doi.org/10.1177/1555412019844631.

Labarre, Nicolas “Authenticity, Nostalgia and Playfulness in Creepshow” in The Art of George A. Romero. University Press of Mississippi, .

Molotiu, Andrei. 2020. “Cartooning.” In Comics Studies: A Guidebook, edited by Charles Hatfield and Bart Beaty, 153–71. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press.

Perron, Bernard. 2018. The World of Scary Video Games: A Study in Videoludic Horror. New York: Bloomsbury Academic.

Ryan, Marie-Laure. 2005. “Peeling the Onion: Layers of Interactivity in Digital Narrative Texts.” Marie-Laure Ryan.  http://www.marilaur.info/onion.htm.

Wandtke, Terrence R. 2018. The Comics Scare Returns: The Contemporary Resurgence of Horror Comics. Comics Studies Monograph Series. Rochester, New York: RIT Press.

Watt-Evans, Lawrence. 2010. “The Other Guys: Pre-Code Horror Comics.” Alter Ego, 1997 2010.



Citer ce billet
Nicolas Labarre (2024, 31 mars). What Remains of EC Comics. Picturing it! Consulté le 18 juin 2024, à l’adresse https://doi.org/10.58079/w4z5

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