My favorite comics writer is the late, great Steve Gerber. The thing that made Gerber great is that he never flinched from exploring the darker side of humanity, of looking with a clear eye into the worst that humankind could bring. Whether it was facing the absurdity of modern life, exploring life after a Columbine-like killing, or facing the labyrinthine complexities of the human mind, Gerber was a writer devoted to finding profound insights into reality inside the medium of comics.
One of Gerber’s most profoundly interesting series was Foolkiller, a miniseries from Marvel that explored, with a straight face and a complete lack of moral judgment, the inner life of a Punisher-like vigilante. In the series, readers saw the Foolkiller’s obsessions, his extreme moral judgments of others, and his insane obsessions with justice. It was an incredibly intense comic, made all the more so by the fact that readers were invited to live inside the head of the vigilante.
Paul Bedford’s The List reminds me of the best of Gerber. Bedford, along with artists Henry Pop and Tom Bonin, explore the insanity and motivations of their protagonist with an unflinching eye. The protagonist is obsessed with honoring his father by drawing blood in an effort to honor the Biblical Commandments. He has the Commandments tattooed onto his chest, and in order to complete his honoring of the Commandments, must cut them out of his flesh after he has done so.
Precisely his motivation for doing so is vague and reflects his insane mind. In the first few pages, the protagonist’s father appears before the protagonist, as if in a vision. Father and son fight, father howling “I will have no son of mine shaming me before the angel” as the son carves words in his own flesh. It’s a profoundly disturbing scene; as readers we have no way of knowing if this scene is literally happening or if it’s all inside the son’s deranged mind. Is the blood on his stomach real, or is it symbolic of his inner agony?
And perhaps more disturbingly, is an even spookier scene with the mother meant to be taken literally or as a symbolic representation of the son’s inner turmoil? It’s said that children must kill their parents in order to truly be free; is writer Bedford implying that readers should take that truism literally in this case, or that we’re seeing the idea explored in symbolic form?
Reading this book forces the reader to explore layers within layers within layers. We wonder about the literal versus the symbolic and the pursuit of higher truths versus insane obsessions. What does it mean to truly honor one’s parents, and is a child fated to always be a symbolic instrument of his parents’ obsessions? And what is the role of that person inside his society?
Bedford only breaks the wall of internal monologue on one of the last few pages of the book, as we see a TV report of the central event of this issue. The events are horrific, but the page is captioned “the unknowing successor.” Will the events spark a copycat? Are the mad obsessions and angers displayed in this book fated to happen again? Should one of the prices of a civil society be the tolerance of a certain level of incivility?
These are profound thoughts for a comic. It’s great to see a creator like Paul Bedford explore the darker sides of humanity. This is a thoroughly dark and disturbing comic book, but it’s also deeply intriguing and thoughtful.
For more on The List, see their website.