Do you ever read something and know right away that it’s going to be…shall we say…divisive? The first issue of Eisner-winning cartoonist Ed Piskor’s new horror anthology series, Red Room, released this week through Fantagraphics Comics, and it’s one of those releases that you’re either going to love or hate– I can’t see many people sitting on the fence for this one.
Red Room as a whole is about the horrific underbelly of emergent technologies, imagine a mix between Black Mirror and Hostel and you’ll have a bit of a feel for the subject matter if not the broader world. For those unfamiliar with the titular concept, red rooms are mythical dark web video chat rooms where anonymous viewers can watch people be tortured, maimed, and ultimately murdered. The idea, like that of so many other technological developments, is to add an element of audience participation and immersion to an older entertainment concept– in this case, snuff films. The first issue tells the intersecting stories of a courthouse desk jockey whose life is uprooted by personal tragedy and a criminal organization that’s desperate to reclaim its place at the forefront of red rooms by bringing in new talent.
At its core, this first issue is one part sleazy crime story and one part tremendously violent horror romp. Ed Piskor has created a grimy, splattery, and altogether unwholesome playground for his sociopathic stars of the dark web. This book is unapologetically over the top and lacking (at least so far, but I’d hazard throughout) any esoteric or forced thematic reflection– if there’s any bigger picture or reason for all of this it’s simply to show how deeply frightening a digitally connected world can be, and it does so in grandiose fashion. Red Room #1 is trashy pulp that’s meant to feel transgressive and edgy for the sheer sake of it and because the creator clearly enjoys making it. In short, I absolutely loved it.
The first thing that popped out at me (narratively, otherwise the answer would likely be an eyeball) is the amount of thought put into the worldbuilding of this book. It would be easy enough to handwave the background of the red rooms and tell serial killer stories without a broader sense of context, but instead, Piskor deftly weaves little morsels of information throughout the book’s impressive 60 odd pages. Whether these bits come from dialogue or chat room style overlays throughout varies, but there’s a lot more going on here than you might expect.
It’s all about the little things: the killers aren’t just murdering for profit, they’re developing entire personas and selling a show, they’re scouted by crime families like first-round draft picks, and the broader world in which this all takes place is just darkened enough to still be a bit too believable. There’s been a lot of thought put into the feasibility of the concept, and it pays dividends in developing unique hooks for the series going forward.
The book is also gorgeous in its own disgusting way. Piskor’s art, layout, and general sensibilities are so well married to his writing and the atmosphere of the book that I couldn’t help but want to see more, even when what we’re seeing is intentionally as vile as possible. The look contributes to the voyeuristic and “outlaw” feeling of the whole thing, and I’d wager it’s going to heighten your personal reaction to the material for better or for worse.
With all that said, I cannot stress enough that this book is not for everyone, even within the world of horror. If you ever considered yourself a fan of trashy paperbacks from the likes of Edward Lee, Brian Keene, Laymon, and the like, you’ll certainly find plenty to enjoy. Likewise, if you grew up with the vaguely mean-spirited gore-obsessed horror movies of the 2000s like Hostel and Saw you’re going to feel right at home. As someone who sits firmly in both those camps, this sort of thing feels made for me, if for no other reason than that it’s a wonderful throwback to an adolescence spent as a silly edge lord. If none of that sounds appealing to you, go ahead and use your best discretion.
Rating 9 out of 10 Dick Guys in the Chatroom