Review: Good and Bad Habits—Acid Nun, by Corinne Halbert
We rarely see the bright side of horror. Mostly connected with darkness and gloom, the genre reluctantly explores color and light. Not always. In the hands of a few auteurs, horror brings the chills in assorted hues, and terror thrives in sunlight. Midsommar offers luminosity and floral tints aplenty, while Creepshow flashes its scares in garish panels reminiscent of the EC Comics the film honors. Similarly, Chicago cartoonist Corinne Halbert’s new graphic novel, Acid Nun, is a bright, colorful affair, well-attended by horrific characters and situations—demons, monsters, blood, and Hell. Yet, this is not a horror comic. And yet it addresses an overlooked aspect of horror: trauma. Horror buffs focus on the milieu’s murders and monsters, forgetting the victims whose trauma—whether caused by ancient curses, psycho killers, terrifying beasts, or bad happenstances—powers the narrative. Acid Nun is a story of personal trauma too, clad in the trappings of sex and blasphemy.
Upfront, Acid Nun isn’t for everyone. Most will be offended by some or several of its panels or pages, which reflect Halbert’s fascination with occult symbolism, religious imagery, and Italian giallo films. If the title isn’t enough of a warning, this is not Peanuts and Garfield.
The plot is whimsically unhinged, keeping with the conceit of an extra-dimensional LSD trip. Annie, the titular nun, drops acid, disappears into her hallucination, and then hell in a reverse Assumption. Concerned, her monster lover Eleanor looks for her, enlisting the help of her goat-headed devil brother/other lover Baphomet, and calling in favors from a fortune-teller and her love thrall, Satan himself. Meanwhile, Annie suffers innumerable tortures and martyrdoms in the underworld, rediscovering her literal inner child and experiencing primal therapy in Pandemonium.
I did say it was an acid trip.
Amidst the illustrated madness Halbert interjects written and cartoon pondering about Annie’s and her own psychic wounds. Betwixt the violence and visibly slippery demonic erotica, Halbert uses art to deal with a below the skin maelstrom, dealing with her father’s suicide, her attempt at age 15, and her rage against misogyny. Much is going on here beyond an attempt to spook the squares with satanic panic.
Acid Nun was originally published by Halbert in individual zines with impressive production values. The phantasmagorical storyline is interspersed with Acid Nun fan art by fellow boundary-pushing artists. These have little to do with the plot, but they maintain the zine’s aura of otherness and bad craziness. Silver Sprocket, a San Francisco-based indie comics publisher, has gathered it all together in a beautiful hardcover package. Beauty is very much be in the eye of the beholder here, but there’s no denying Halbert’s skill at communicating her vision, and visions. Her style is loose and open, almost like coloring book illustrations, but with color provided. And what colors. Halbert’s art is lurid but cheerful—practically frolicsome. The pages echo stained glass windows, saint iconography, prayer and tarot cards, and fairy tales. Cinéastes versed in the Italian giallo, horror, and nunsploitation films she adores will find Easter eggs galore.
Is Acid Nun safe reading? Absolutely not. With multiple transgressions and taboos on display, from voreaphilia to the various -linguses, unseasoned readers might be left feeling outraged and queasy. But don’t dismiss the book as mere sensationalism. Does it have socially redeeming value then? Mentally redeeming might be more accurate. Catharsis is king, or perhaps pope, in Acid Nun. I interviewed Halbert once. She is as amiable and optimistic as the oxymoronic sunniness of her art suggests. While she delves into dark corners, she doesn’t linger. Acid Nun’s main storyline is a rescue mission. Mind, there’s plenty of darkness here, and anyone who plays with hellfire gets burned. Still, even in Hell Halbert’s characters find light and redemption. And sex. Lots and lots of disturbing sex.
Transgressive art is very good at stirring up emotions. It can repulse and disgust and inspire angry villagers to grab the torches and pitchforks for a good old-fashioned stake-burning. Much of it is pap put out by angry adolescents of all ages, but some, the kind that deals wth trauma, transcends even as it transgresses (Ivan Brunetti and Hideshi Hino’s work come to mind). Ultimately, its worth is measured by what’s left behind when the flames die down. Cartoonists who skew toward the blasphemous, horrifying, and grotesque, who push every button and envelope possible (and then some), run the risk of going so far beyond, they’ve got nowhere left to go. Halbert clearly does though, and I look forward to seeing where she goes next.
Acid Nun is available in bookstores and through the Silver Sprocket website.
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