I’ve never been a fan of Kris Straub’s work, to be totally honest. I always found his jokes not so funny, his characters, not so interesting, his plots, not so original. As a cartoonist, he seemed kind of mediocre. Perhaps my opinion was colored by the fact that my first exposure to him was the dreadful, clown-protagonisted Checkerboard Nightmare, back when it was still updating. But those were dark times, and all webcomics were bad back then, so it hardly seems fair to hold that against him. Even if he does strike me as an insufferable nerd-bro.
It was with this mindset that I started reading Broodhollow. Whenever a comic I don’t recognize pops up in the Hiveworks navigation bar on other comics I read, I check it out – sometimes it’s crap, sometimes it’s decent. Broodhollow immediately caught my attention just with its stylistic contrast between the simple, Wattersonesque characters and the richly, gruesomely detailed horror imagery. As I dug through the archives, I found it had a lot to recommend it.
Broodhollow isn’t just about a down-on-his luck encyclopedia salesman, or the letter he receives about a distant uncle who bequeathed him a considerable inheritance, or the strange town of Broodhollow that he travels to to collect it. It’s not just about ghosts, or mysterious attacks by gigantic bats, or the hundreds of unexplained holidays the town celebrates. Perhaps foremost, Broodhollow is a story about mental illness: trauma, paranoia, obsessive compulsion, and dementia.
Wadsworth Zane, the hero of the tale, is not well. The year is nineteen-thirty-something; Prohibition is in full effect, Freud is still uncontested as the primary scholar of the mind, and we first see Wadsworth reclining on the prototypical psychologist’s couch, talking to a man we will later learn is his friend Dr. Klaus Angstrom, whom he met after moving to the unsettling town of Broodhollow. Wadsworth is obsessed with something he calls “the pattern,” a predictive method he has developed to identify and avoid things that leave him vulnerable to misfortune, bad luck, and other, more sinister forces. Following the pattern, he believes, protects him, and involves things like opening his mailbox a certain number of times before checking the contents, or making sure all doors are either completely closed or all the way open.
Modern readers can easily conclude he has obsessive-compulsive disorder, or perhaps paranoid schizophrenia or some other form of psychosis, but Depression-era psychoanalysis had no such labels, and diagnosing his experience is not the point of the comic. The point is that his experience is something that a lot of mentally ill readers can relate to, and this appears to be both deliberate and written in a way that is consistently respectful of those experiences. For that, Straub has earned a modicum of my respect. There are even some humorous jabs at psychiatry that made me laugh.
The intersection of mental illness and the horror genre is one with a long and extremely poor history – if I never hear of another horror movie with “psycho” in the title, it’ll be too god damn soon. Likewise, having the word “crazy” used against sane people with unbelievable stories is a horror trope I’d like to see die a rapid death. But many disorders of the psyche do bring immense fear with them, and instead of relying on ableist horror standbys, Straub actually manages to capture the fear that comes as a part of actually being “crazy”, of being forced to second-guess your perceptions of reality, to find yourself afraid of innocuous things with no ability to explain why. And ultimately, the horrifying supernatural forces at work in Broodhollow are separate and distinct from Wadsworth’s own psychoses, although they have a disturbing synergy with each other. It’s not all just in his head, and his paranoia and obessions may actually be the key to unlocking Broodhollow’s mysteries.
Unfortunately, mental health issues are about the only thing Broodhollow handles well. The cast is whiter than the river in my hometown after a train derailed and dumped a bunch of acrylic primer into it. After Chaper 2 started, Straub began introducing a trickle of black side characters – far to the side, we’re talking “Cop #4” and “Distressed Man” in the credits – but without any acknowledgement of the Jim Crow laws that were in effect during that time. There’s not even any personal bigotry – everyone treats the black members of their community with the same respect – or lack thereof – that they offer everyone else. The comic is dedicated to being a period piece in every other regard, but Straub doesn’t have the guts to acknowledge the brutal racism that would have touched any town in West Virginia, no matter how many ghosts or monsters it had. What we get is a strange anachronism, a white liberal fantasy of a past where racism didn’t exist and race didn’t need to be talked about.
And for a long time, Iris Bellweather, a secretary at the law firm executing Wadsworth’s uncle’s will, is the only female character, and it feels like her primary reason for inclusion is to be Wadsworth’s presumed love interest. Later she joins the Ladies’ Auxiliary (at which point the comic finally passes the Bechdel test!), which provides some interesting insights into the periodic selective memory loss that the town experiences, and hints that the town’s emphasis on tradition may be a strategic tool to fight it. But even this is an interlude, an aside to the main story of bro mans duding out. Sigh.
Brohollow Broodhollow is well-written, no doubt about it. The story is well-paced, the characters are relatable, the scary parts are actually quite tense, wouldn’t ya know it? Too bad about all the white dudes! It seems like Kris Straub broke out of his usual mold for this one – just not far enough.
Final verdict: If you’re mentally ill and love horror, this horror loves you back. The same can’t be said if you’re a person of color or a woman though. Sorry.