Posted on March 27, 2009 by Jason Thorson
The third issue of Robert M. Heske’s Cold Blooded Chillers: Tales of Suburban Murder and Malice is a collection of three short graphic stories, all written by Heske and drawn by artists Adam Swiecki, Reno Maniquis, and Dirk Shearer. Cold Blooded Chillers is an homage to the horror serials and anthologies of yesteryear including E.C. Comics horror titles such as Tales from the Crypt, as well as television classics like The Twilight Zone. The difference is that the aforementioned examples occasionally had a tongue firmly planted in a cheek whereas this collection plays in the dark exclusively.
The book opens with a story called Shadow which is immediately engaging by way of its sophisticated and disturbing tone. Heske tells the tale of a young boy forced into child prostitution by his mother’s boyfriend. Sound horrible? It is. Heske respects the collective intelligences of his readers by avoiding hitting this topic too squarely on the nose, thereby allowing us to fill in a few blanks, but overall Shadow goes where it goes, unflinchingly. Adam Swiecki’s artwork is comprised of heavy lines and extreme black and white contrast which is appropriately oppressive given the subject matter.
Shadow is technically well crafted, but story-wise it’s flawed. Aside from a super natural twist, there’s absolutely no light to accent the darkness in this story. Shadow’s cynicism swallows potential protagonists like Halloween candy as the characters are either rendered as hopelessly tragic or completely unlikable. This results in a story significantly less fulfilling than it would be had we been given more of a rooting interest in one or more of the folks populating it.
The most successful of the three tales is called Transcendence. It recounts a grieving night watchman’s struggle coping with his daughter’s death and his alcoholism as he holds down the graveyard shift at a large Aquarium. It’s a classic chicken/egg scenario in which we aren’t sure which came first, the night watchman’s alcoholism or the tragic death of his daughter. One caused the other, but which? The well-crafted story comes full circle as it resolves in a satisfying, yet poly-valent ending.
Heske’s writing here is tight. He drips out exposition without compromising any forward momentum all while managing to give his night watchman enough characterization to elicit empathy from us. Reno Maniquis’ artwork is minimalist in style, but composed brilliantly. The panel-to-panel layout as well as the composition and framing of individual panels lends an acute narrative guide to our emotional hike through this story.
The last tale is called Synchronicity. A depressed woman realizes she’s one of the “chosen few” being looked after by guardian angels/aliens. She can’t die even though she’d like to. She tests this, but death always eludes her. After years of misery she finds happiness in love as well as the larger implications of being one of the chosen few. Synchronicity reads like a large story stuffed into a small space. The result is an overly obscure plot that is not altogether comprehensible. There are interesting concepts at play here, but Heske fails to tie things together in a way that forms a cohesive narrative. I suspect some of the more important cues are visual. Despite solid artwork from Dirk Shearer, comic book illustrations aren’t finely honed enough to convey these cues clearly, which leaves us wondering what we’ve just read. Synchronicity would be much better served on film.
At its worst, Cold Blooded Chillers is confusing and unfulfilling. However, at its best Robert M. Heske’s horror collection is dark and riveting, offering haunting and intelligent narrative fiction and stark artwork. It’s clear that Heske isn’t content to appeal to the lowest common denominator and that he’s comfortable taking chances. When Heske gambles sometimes he loses, but when he wins, he wins big. The safe bet is to make sure you check out his future offerings.
3 flames out of 5
Review by Jason Thorson