Welcome to The Pull List, a weekly column where we check out a first issue of a new series and tell you whether or not to follow the comic based only on that. Richard Corben’s Lovecraftian horror series Rat God, while dated in some respects, inverts the racial bias in Lovecraft’s work in an intriguing way.
Corben is an astronomical name in horror comics, known first for his work in 70s horror mags like Heavy Metal and Eerie, and seen mroe recently in titles like Hellboy and Hellblazer. It’s exceedingly difficult to summarize his incredibly unique style; the magic is in the unnatural sheen of his colors, and definitely in the bizarre mishmash of textures. He constructs landscapes out of crumbles and ragged bunches of linework, then juxtaposes that with an incredible, almost airbrushed softness in a cheek or muscle. He has a mastery of so many techniques that it’s no wonder his monstrous designs look like nothing else in comics.
So it goes without saying that Rat God looks beautiful–not quite up to par with his best, but this first issue is definitely kept at a restrained simmer. The story opens as two pre-Colonial Native American siblings flee from hostile tribesmen into the forest. The hunters are done up in vivid, mad, colorful battle gear and look completely deranged, and there’s another Corben quirk for you—nobody does a menacing grimace like he does, he just has a knack for making human teeth look like forbidding monuments in a villainous grin.
In the course of their flight, strange things happen in the woods, a corpselike figure appears, and the sister, Kito, is separated from her brother. There, their story melds into the early 20th century, where we encounter Clark Elwood, a racist, frail, bookish post-grad who looks to be Corben’s stand-in for Lovecraft himself. At this point, the story takes an unexpected tack into a critique of the famed horror author’s well-known racial biases.
Where in Lovecraft’s writings, there was a strong parallel drawn between his degenerate subhuman creatures and what he perceived to be degenerate subhuman races, Corben turns that dynamic on his head, portraying Elwood as a prejudiced creature of learning and snobbery, who’s quickly set up to learn much about the Old World, and perhaps the Older Gods lurking behind it.
Elwood’s world includes two characters parallel to the Native American siblings, present-day iterations of their fugitive past selves; Chuk is a roadside drifter bumming a ride, and Kito is a beautiful undergrad and romantic interest. There’s much to be said regarding Lovecraft’s Eurocentric, subtly imperialist themes in Elwood’s interaction with these Native descendants, sometimes reviled and sometimes sexualized, but always marginalized.
Lovecraft is effectively painted as an interloper with a passing interest and fascination with these old traditions and forces, and the story ends before we can see these themes mature. As the story stands, it has much to interest dedicated Corben fans, and those willing to see Lovecraft’s proxy, Elwood, get his prejudices fed to him by a tentacled horror, but uninitiated readers might find the ending uneven and less than satisfactory. There is a datedness to Corben’s storytelling, especially in the moment at which the past and present collide—it really smacks of plot twists found in the pages of Corben’s earliest horror works and doesn’t pack quite the punch today as it did then. That being said, as someone pretty invested in all things Lovecraft, Corben’s pursuing an intriguing line of thought that both critiques and expands upon what makes the “L” word so mesmerizing.