From The Comics Journal #187, July 1995

Holy Cross #1-3Edit

Reviewed by Anne Rubenstein

In the United States, every comic book is a superhero comic. That is, readers’ expectations are formed entirely by the dominant genre; cartoonists who want to tell other kinds of stories must cope with that set of ideas about what a comic is and what types of tales it should contain. The medium itself may encourage irreality, since anything at all can be shown in it, unlike film or television or theater. Why not, then, use it to display the least plausible actions and characters? Even the most intimate, autobiographical expressions — the work of Harvey Pekar, say, or Chester Brown — can seem comfortingly familiar. Aren’t they really versions of “secret identity” stories, narratives from the lives of nebbishy Clark Kents or Peter Parkers?

Other cartoonists employ different strategies in stretching the acceptable boundaries of the form. One useful technique for writers and artists hoping to portray human-scale dramas is to set their stories in melodramatic places and times. Maus, for instance, described recognizable interactions among ordinary humans, but the requisite melodrama arose from the historical circumstances in which it was set. Stuck Rubber Baby, the forthcoming graphic novel by Howard Cruse, takes a similar approach by mining the civil rights movement for material. And Holy Cross, Malachy Coney’s wonderful new comic, also relies on a lurid but realistic locale: occupied Belfast.

Every issue of Holy Cross — there have been three so far — focuses on a different series of events in the same impoverished Catholic neighborhood. Coney writes them; the comic has been drawn by a different artist in every issue, all of whom have provided clear, competent support for narratives centered far more in text than picture. (Parodoxically, Coney’s scripts rely as much on silence as on sound, with few captions and not a single unnecessary word of dialogue.) Each story is complete in itself, but then, at 48 pages these are fairly long comic books. The continuing presence of a pair of marginal characters, Jimmy and Davy, help link the episodes, papering over the gaps between artists and between stories. They are a sweet-natured pair of unemployed, middle-aged, philosophical drunks who may or may not be lovers. But the protagonists of Holy Cross are old women and (especially) young boys, the weakest members of the violent society Coney portrays.

Like Cruse and Spiegelman, Coney asks how ordinary people’s experiences and natures might be distorted by extraordinary times. He avoids explaining anything in the lives of his characters as the direct result of the British occupation. But violence — realistic and ugly, almost dull, nothing like the superhero version — haunts Holy Cross. Nowhere is safe: policemen and soldiers stand on every corner, bombs hide in drainpipes, rapists break into bedrooms, bingo games in church end with acrimonious bickering, and the neighborhood — infested with gangs of vigilantes — is lit by burning trash. Few human relationships go untouched by violence: Coney’s characters are bullied by their neighbors, lose their friends and relations to “the troubles,” suffer beating at the hands of their parents, and are injured by their teammates on the soccer field. Their schoolteachers give them bad dreams.

Even these characters’ imaginations seem infected by a sense of threat. Nightmares — realistic ones — plague some of them, while many indulge themselves with hopeless fantasies of power. Davy and Jimmy, who bedeck their living room with posters for Darkman and Zombie Fleshfest, watch The Evil Dead with their drinking buddies over and over again. The boys whose woes are at the heart of the third issue act out comic book scenes in the vacant lot which is their playground. They obsessively watch old thrillers on television although they understand that, as one of them says, “it’s a load of ole’ shite anyway. It’s the same every week.” To which his companion, a boy who suffers horribly from an abusive parent, can only reply weakly, “It takes my mind off things.” Their fantasies are no substitute for real autonomy and security, and are just a thin comfort in hard times.

Holy Cross suggests that such imagining may serve more than an ameliorative function. Fantasies of danger and power also inform the behavior of the more powerful characters in Coney’s district of Belfast. The police seem to borrow their dialogue from Hill Street Blues reruns (“terrorists, rapists, child pornographers… I don’t see any difference at all, we have to stop every one of them”) while the local vigilantes might be modeling themselves on a John Ford western. (“So we take it in shifts… no-one will get past. And we’ll catch this bastard before he gets anyone else.”)

An abusive father excuses his rage as the product of his son’s failure to live up to his Sports Illustrated ideals; as he reels back from the pub, he complains, “I’ve been listening to fathers talking about their sons, what football teams they played for, the trophies… they won… an’ what have I got for a son? A fuckin’ wee nancy boy.”

In one issue of Holy Cross, the imagination acts as more than a comfort to the downtrodden. The second issue tells the story of a young orphan who has caught his tears in a glass jug all his life. (Coney’s use of the “bottled-up” metaphor for sorrow is uncharacteristiclaly heavy-handed.) Just before he leaves with the priest to enter a seminary, he escapes from his aunt’s house with his tears tucked under his arm. After various mishaps, he arrives at a wharf, pursued by his aunt and the priest. Before they can reach him, he empties the bottle into the sea. Magical horses appear from the waves to carry him away; his fantasies rescue him from Belfast.

This awkward fairy tale is as close as Coney gets to conventional comic book narrative. But it’s not nearly as compelling as the other two issues of Holy Cross. Unlike them, it portrays fantasy as a harmless, perhaps benign escape from a terrible situation. Most of the time — and this, I think, is the point of Holy Cross — Coney knows better.

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