COMIC REVIEW: Cancertown 2: Blasphemous Tumours

Back in 2009 Cy Dethan gave us his debut graphic novel, the breath-takingly original Cancertown. He’s continued to forge his own path ever since, with gems like The Indifference Engine and Slaughterman’s Creed. Last year he managed to wring both our hearts and our necks with the emotional tale  that was White Knuckle, and it became clear that a new master had arrived.

I’ve marveled at each of these works, but Cancertown is the only one that cried out for a sequel. I loved the noirish tone, the wild imagination, the bat-shit crazy monsters and the sheer bad-assery of Vince Morley – a man who doesn’t give a damn about the horrors he’s facing, ’cause he thinks he’s dying anyway. I found it pretty confusing the first time round but then I was reading single issues on a tiny screen over a number of weeks. Collected in trade, it flows a lot smoother, the artwork is more appreciable and it ties up beautifully by the end. Although the central plot was wrapped up in a satisfying conclusion it always felt to me like there was more to be explored in this twisted world. Thankfully Cy felt the same way, so let’s take a look now at Cancertown 2: Blasphemous Tumours.

The story is an absolute cracker with an ending that had me applauding. Trouble is I can’t discuss it without major spoilers. Puts me in a bit of a tough position. Look, do you have any idea how rare it is to find a comic that is genuinely gripping? Oh, we all have plenty of characters and story arcs that we love but to find a comic that keeps you on your toes throughout; that shocks or scares or delights you on every damned page; that keeps your mind whizzing right up to the very end? Hell, that’s something to treasure! All I can tell you is this: something new has come to Cancertown. It’s big, it’s powerful and it’ll rip the world apart until it finds what it’s looking for. The Players hate Morley, but he may well be all that stands between them and annihilation. Each chapter has a great cliff-hanger and the peril just keeps escalating. The walls between the worlds are getting thinner, and time is running out rapidly. Destiny awaits, but how will Morley face it?

(Not got a clue what I’m talking about? Go and read the first volume, you numpty. Better yet, skip to the link at the bottom and order the double pack. Bargain price. Seriously. Right… Onwards!)

The first thing that jumps out is the shift in style between books. I found it slightly jarring at first, having re-read An Inconvenient Tooth in preparation. Let me explain why. The first book was revelatory in creature design and hugely impactful in its layouts. It had a sensibility familiar to readers of Clive Barker: more darkly fantastic than raw horror. Graeme Howard shakes things up a bit in Blasphemous Tumours, but once you get your head around it you’ll see how well it works. Where Stephen Downey’s imagery was cleanly drawn and beautifully rendered, his successor gives us something supremely demented; a messed up nightmare of torment and jagged edges. What Howard loses in detail, though, he makes up for with sheer atmosphere. His ‘camera’ angles are inventive and his horror is visceral. (Monsters aside, even Morley looks like a mess, but then again he probably should after what he’s been through.)

Never a classic hero, Morley retains a core of decency and makes for a very engaging anti-hero. Visually we see this most clearly in a pencil-only flashback, where he first meets the homeless girl he has come to know as ‘Bugfuck.’ The shapes are more rounded, the linework gentler and the features more sympathetic. It’s a comforting scene in a comforting style, and it is here that Howard’s artistic choices become apparent, through contrast. Back in volume one, Morley was all about self-control. Whilst normal life collapsed around him he was practically OCD when it came to Cancertown: always watching himself; stopping the chaos from claiming him and those around him. Now though, he’s stopped medicating. He’s losing that part of himself that wants to live in the ‘real’ world, and the farther Morley spins out of control the wilder the art-style becomes. Even the layouts have become more fragmented and crazed, doubling up on the nightmarish quality. We begin to experience the world in just the way that Morley does, and it blew my frickin’ mind.

Driving this home is the combined efforts of the colourist (newcomer, Peter Mason) and the letterer (returning wonder, Nic Wilkinson.) Mason uses an intense, warm palette that lends an Oz-like richness to Cancertown when slapped up against the cold urban sprawl that Morley calls home. Somehow it feels more real, more attractive, more addictive a location to be in. The vividness and the way the colours are just out of whack, lends the piece an almost sick urgency. Throw in the mind-quakes where image and the written word are shaken so much as to be nearly unreadable and you have a true vision of a world falling apart. The size, thickness and fonts of text are used effectively throughout to depict the emotions and personality of the characters, though none so strikingly as The Players. Each of these god-like beings have a dedicated font which somehow manages to translate into a specific vocal style in the mind of the reader – thanks to the unique design work. I have never seen the art of the letterer used as intelligently before; adding so much to the overall piece without becoming intrusive or gimmicky.

So what have we got overall? Cancertown is not a nice place, I’ll grant you that. In fact, it’s a bloody nightmare – darker than night-soil and twice as nasty – but at the same time I find it utterly fascinating. It’s a grotesque creation where everything seems to be alive. We get the sense that a dream logic holds the place together, yet the individual rules escape us. Like any structure of the mind we are simply convinced of its reality. The creators have a story to tell and they don’t back away from it for a second. The horror is brutal and there is some pretty disturbing imagery along the way. The villain ‘Head Rush’ seriously ramps up the menace. The speed, the ferocity and the magnitude of his attacks are shocking. The full-page spread of him charging straight towards you is quite frankly terrifying! At the same time, Dethan and co construct meaningful and layered relationships between the human characters, painting them in shades of sorrow. It’s a strong team dynamic and they make great use of the comic medium, adding depth to their narrative in ways that simply could not be achieved in any other art-form.
I doff my hat to them all. Highly recommended.

Rating: 5/5

Reviewer: Dion Winton-Polak

You can pop on over to Cy’s blog for more information about this (and the other books mentioned), read a free preview of Cancertown 2: Blasphemous Tumours and grab yourself a fantastic pre-order deal.

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