Severed is a distinctly American horror story, feeling like something of a companion piece to author Scott Snyder’s American Vampire or even the work of Stephen King. Set during the dark days of the first world war, it’s an exploration of the darker side of the American Dream, to the point where it’s quite telling that our narrator refers to the anonymous villain merely as “the Nightmare.” It’s rich, sophisticated and atmospheric storytelling, a modern American fable co-written by Scott Tuft and with bone-chilling illustrations from Attila Futaki that are sure to unsettle.
As a society, we fear for our children. That’s one of the most basic fears that exists – the sense of dread that we can’t protect those weakest and most vulnerable among us from the darkness lurking at the edge of the porch. Severed is the story of a runaway, Jack, who decides to set off across the country to find his birth father. Naturally, our youthful voyager is ill-prepared for the world at large, and far too trusting to stand a chance against the sinister forces at play.
He’s almost sexually assaulted by railway police man early on, but that doesn’t damage his faith in humanity. When a strange old man invites him back to his apartment for dinner and drinks, his companion is wary. Jack tries to allay Sam’s fears. “Come on,” Jack remarks, having caught a glimpse of the stranger’s one-and-only business card. “He’s a card–”Of course, nobody who carries a card identifying them as a travelling salesman could be anybody but, right?
However, this version of America is no place for Jack. He meets Sam, a young girl who poses as a boy. “Bad things happen to girls out here,” she explains. She’s barely a teenager, and already she lives in fear of what people might do to her. of course, it seems that Sam has been mistreated and exploited by even those closest to her, recalling some time spent with her uncle before she ran away. “Okay for a while… ’til I found out what he really wanted.” Naturally, nobody cared, and the only place left for Sam was on the road.
Far from the land of opportunity, American is presented as a hostile place. There’s a dark sense of humour evident in Snyder and Tuft’s writing, as they choose to open on an older Jack watching Elvis Presley on television. Presley’s pelvic thrusts had caused a moral panic, but Jack is somewhat cynical about the risk that Presley poses to the youth of America. “There’s bigger threats out there than some kid shaking his hips.”He should know. It’s a nice little moment, and a smart place to begin the story.
Perhaps all that moral panic over rock-and-roll, movies or comics, allows a society to displace its own anxieties about the real risks to children. Maybe by venting our frustration on “corrupting” moral influences, it takes the edge off the far more tangible threats and risks posed by the outside world, arriving in the most innocuous and anonymous of forms. When Jack’s grandson comes in with a note from his old friend, Jack demands to know what the stranger looked like. The kid responds, “Normal, I guess. Like everyone else.” That’s the danger parents can’t really protect from.
Scott Snyder and Scott Tuft’s Severed feels like a dark deconstruction of the American road myth, the type of story told by Mark Twain. Jack dreams of travelling the country, reconnecting with his long-lost father and even developing into a music star. When he arrives in Chicago, the big city, he discovers that it’s really nothing more than an anonymous meat grinder. When he can’t find his father performing at a high-profile show, the musicians suggest he try the local cat houses, as many musicians work there. That’s the flip side of “the American Dream.”Nobody dreams of playing background music in a sleazy brothel, but somebody has to.
The anonymous villain of the piece is referred to as “the Nightmare” by Jack, in marked contrast to “the Dream.” In many ways, he seems somewhat analogous to Stephen King’s Randall Flag, the embodiment of the dark side of American culture. The monster claims to be almost eternal, boasting, “I’ve been on the road peddling since the beginning of time.” Like “the Walking Dude” he wanders the roads of American, selling dreams to those foolish enough to be tempted.
He thrives on his anonymity, the dark counterpart to the idealised American individualism – America is a country where anybody can make anything of themselves, but that freedom comes with a cost. It allows shade and shelter for those who might do horrible things, free from the interference of others. Of his run-down apartment, the stranger boasts, “It ain’t exactly the Carlyle, but there’s no rules and they leave you to your own devices.”
It seems quite creepy, and the implication is obvious – a time-displaced acknowledgement of the infamous Kitty Genovese incident, the suggestion that American cities are nothing but charnel houses, where anonymous arrivals get chewed up and (if they’re lucky) spit out. “Everything gets eaten,” Sam comments, astutely. When Jack arrives in Chicago, he notes that it “smells like… like… cows?” Sam points to the cattle being herded along, not unlike the recently-arrived human passengers, “In a couple hours… every last one of ‘em stanky beasts will be beefsteaks that’d make a dead man’s mouth water. You know this town’ll swallow folks whole…”
The imagery associated with eating – consumption – is revisited time and again throughout the seven-part miniseries. It’s certainly very effective on the part of Snyder and Tuft. After all, that’s what the world threatens to do to Jack, to eat him up whole. The stranger just literalises that fear. Although Jack and Sam are hardly innocent – they each have appetites, and aspire to more. Their hunger might be more metaphorical, but it drives the plot. Jack’s craving to meet his biological father leads him to abandon a loving mother, and into the arms of a monster.
In many ways, it’s the same sort of narrative technique that Snyder would use in his Detective Comics and Batman work, using a repeated and oft-stated metaphor as means of exploring the underlying themes of the story. The technique worked there due to the heightened nature of superhero comics, and it works here because Snyder and Tuft structure the story as a grim modern fairy tale. This makes me more than a little sad that DC opted not to collect Snyder’s Swamp Thing in hardcover, as it seems perfectly suited to his aesthetic. No mainstream horror comic has been mroe distinctly American than Swamp Thing, even when written by British writers.
It’s no coincidence that the stranger manages to con people by satiating their desires. He arrives in an orphanage to claim a young boy, but he allays suspicion by offering them material benefits. “Here are our newest bulbs,” he offers. “The filaments last for thousands of hours.” He tempts children by offeringthem items. For Jack, he poses as a recording salesman. For his earlier victim, he offers a way out of the orphanage and a chance at steady employment. When a police officer pulls him over, he escapes by offering the cop a novelty, the chance to listen to a top-of-the-line speaker.
The stranger himself seems somewhat ethereal. Asked to explain himself, he comments, “Me? I was born this way. Behind these pearly whites, I got razor sharp teeth.” We see that he’s not being metaphorical. “They don’t know my real name,” he comments after Jack hears a family referring to him using another name. “No one does.” It’s implied that he might not even have one – that he might just be “the Nightmare”, personified.
At one point, he boasts, “I’ve led many lives, Jack… Been on the road since the beginning of time.” Snyder and Tuft show us that the killer has a knack for scalping, suggesting that perhaps he pre-dates the European settlers. He might not be lying when he claims, “I’ve been doing this for centuries, boy! Since before this country was conceived.” It makes for an interesting contrast with Stephen King’s Randall Flagg, who the author expressly roots in the social strife of the fifties and sixties. It’s possible the stranger arrived before the American ideals he exploits existed.
In which case, is it possible that – rather than he being rooted in them – that they are rooted in him? Is the stranger some dark primordial personification of human fear that eventually evolved into “the American Dream”? Certainly, he seems like he could have emerged from a sinister European fairytale like Red Riding Hood or Hansel & Gretel. He has just been updated to reflect a society that was (at the time this story is set) on the verge of becoming the defining global power of the twentieth century? I don’t know, but there’s a lot here to think about.
The pair of writers structure Severed as something like a grim fairytale, one approaching the present, and yet not quite there. As Jack tells us in the opening chapter, “The Nightmare that was lurking outside… waiting for me on the horizon.”Given the brutality of the twentieth century, it seems like an astute statement to make the year before America enters the First World War. Indeed, it seems structured as a cautionary fable in the same style as many early fairytales involving children, with the stranger providing a reason why kids shouldn’t accept rides from strange men with promises of candy.
The smart script is assisted by wonderfully atmospheric artwork from Attila Futaki, giving the story an eerie and slightly oppressive atmosphere, even in the middle of the day. Futaki has a wodnerful eye for pacing, and does a great job structuring log conversations in an engaging manner. He also doesn’t shy away from the inherent unpleasantness in the story. This is, after all, the tale of a cannibal serial killer stalking children. The art is downright unsettling at times, and all the more powerful for it.
If you’re looking for a dark and twisted modern cautionary tale, Severed comes with the highest possible recommendation, showing three creators on the top of their form.
Filed under: Comics Tagged: | american dream, arts, batman, Chicago, dc comics, detective comics, elvis presley, Incandescent light bulb, jack, Mark Twain, Scott Snyder, Snyder, stephen king, United States, World War I