As a kid, my biggest fear about adulthood was failing to meet my own lofty expectations. Part of that was a fear of becoming anonymous, indistinguishable from others who had abandoned childhood dreams in favor of neutral mediocrity. I was raised on heroes and wonder and honestly believing I could change the world somehow. But mostly it was a fear that I wouldn't even meet my compromises, that I'd wind up endlessly settling, with less and less spirit every year. I've made it past the quarter century mark and half that time that fear is a tireless motivator, every accomplishment simply not enough to keep it at bay or make it disappear. The rest of the time it is a crushing force that robs me of all energy and vitality, a constant reminder that in the grand scheme of things I have done little to nothing and have colossally fucked up at any number of points. I can't speak for Joe Casey and Steve Parkhouse but I get the feeling that they know that fear, that it guides them as well and it's that specific fear that is prominently displayed in their remarkably devastating work The Milkman Murders, which has been newly reissued by Image.
In a typically vital piece of backmatter added to this edition, Casey speaks about the darkness of the suburbs, where sterile exteriors mask untold domestic horrors behind their walls. He speaks of the way that darkness "can eat away at you over time" and "affects people in different ways." The Milkman Murders is about both how that darkness eats away at one Barbara Vale and affects her but also how the promise of a better life fuels that darkness, making her particular situation all the worse because of how it fails to live up to the golden standard she's set. The graphic novel begins with the literal visualization of that golden standard, a nostalgic show titled Leave it to Mother, illustrated by Parkhouse in atomic age brightness drenched not in sepia but rosy pink hued black and white. As the first chapter pans out, Barbara's world is revealed to be coated in grimy yellows, oranges, browns. Her features are misshapen, worn down, unabashedly frumpy. Parkhouse draws the entire Vale family like rodents, with big buck teeth and huge snouts for noses, framed by comically large ears. But the characters of Leave it to Mother are sharp, more "lifelike" than the real characters the story focuses on.
The message is that we sometimes place fantasy on a higher ground than reality, hoping that by doing so we will augment our surroundings and place within them. It's a juxtaposition that carries over into Casey's dialogue: Leave it to Mother on one end, with its purposefully overwritten cornball platitudes, the Vales' coarse, vulgar outbursts in the other. We immediately feel horrified and depressed for Barbara but if we're honest with ourselves we admit something else: we hate her for being so meek and submissive, for not even attempting to live up to her potential, for being so like ourselves. In fiction we want resolution and growth, to see transformation and comeuppance; even The Milkman Murders' editor, Scott Allie, couldn't help but fall prey to that instinct, begging Casey to change the end of this graphic novel, to make it more optimistic and hopeful. But the potency of the story is in how clear it is that nothing will ever get better for Barbara, she will never win, she will never escape, even when true horror reaches her and awakens something more dominant and powerful within her.
This is where the story gets personal for me. Like anyone else I've been in a variation of Barbara's position, accepting the awfulness of my surroundings and station in life with a weak silence, too afraid to take a risk and secretly comfortable in the consistency of misery. And like Barbara, it's in moments of pitch black darkness that I am altered and made more aware. In Barbara I see myself and yet I am also forced to see my own mother, endlessly ravaged not by an awful domestic situation but her own body, which has caused her to put aside dreams in a nonstop parade of chemotherapy, steroids and experimental pharmaceuticals, all meant to keep the cancer from killing her, all beating down on her in so many different ways. Those treatments keep her alive but they are as merciless as any abuser, leaving her bruised and battered externally and internally and there's nothing she or I or the rest of my family can do but devote so many hours of our waking days to fantasizing of revenge, against nature, genetics, science itself for failing to deliver on the promise of past futures.
Barbara's eventual actions are horrific to us because they are tempting in ways we can't admit to, because we dream of power for selfish reasons, or reasons that are selfish in scope even if they're ostensibly for the benefit of someone we love. She gets her comeuppance against the family that tramples and destroys her but only at the cost of everything that made her a lone good figure in a sea of darkness. And it's in that moment that we as readers gain absolute clarity even if Barbara doesn't: Barbara's tormentors turned victims were just combatting the darkness themselves, resorting to similarly desperate measures in order to gain some kind of escape and she is merely a vessel for new, different awakenings in each of them.
Barbara's husband Vince finds solace in a buffet of drugs and a neverending appetite for abuse; her daughter Ruthie finds it in weaponizing her sexuality; and her youngest son Fletcher mimics his mom's eventual path, assassinating and mutilating pets and then using their corpses as trophies. The horror of The Milkman Murders is suburban, and domestic, and middle class but more than that it's the horror of what happens when we stop being eaten by the darkness and embrace it, refitting it to reflect our desire to be something more, no matter how terrifying that something more is. It's the horror of finally realizing that you never met your potential because you always thought your potential was something good and beneficial but as Ruthie is told by her pseudo-guardian angel, that goodness is easily flipped, that you are "not simply a giver of life…you can take it."
As artists, Casey and Parkhouse know the meaning of this better than most and in their symbiotic, telepathic connection the two have created a story of limitless horror and power. It is a story of raw emotion and brutal honesty, universal despite the specificity of its location and characters, timeless in its style and message. This is comics as fantasy and therapy, a bleak but fulfilling follow-up on promise and potential. T
his is horror as it should be told, no holds barred, nothing held back. This is fiction as a reminder that everyday wasted is a move further away from the destination we set for ourselves, back when we believed.
When he's not writing about the cape and spandex set and functioning as the Co-Managing Editor of Comics Bulletin, Nick Hanover is a book, film and music critic who has contributed to Spectrum Culture, No Tofu Magazine, Performer Magazine, Port City Lights and various other international publications. By which he means Canadian rags you have no reason to know anything about. He also translates for "Partytime" Lukash's Panel Panopticon and you can follow him on Twitter at @Nick_Hanover.