The DEADcomic Overlook #139: Split Lip
“Our bodies break down, sometimes when we’re 90, sometimes before we’re even born, but it always happens and there’s never any dignity in it. I don’t care if you can walk, see, wipe your own ass… it’s always ugly, always. You can live with dignity; you can’t die with it.” — Dr. Gregory House
In the past four years, I’ve had to deal with the deaths of my grandma, my father-in-law, my uncle, my wife’s uncle, and my dear friend who left a grieving wife and four children behind. Every time my wife’s grandma — who turned 95 this year — ends up at the hospital, we all hold our breaths frightened that this may be the last day we see her. My own father died the same year I began this blog. You never get used to deal with it, and every death is a harrowing reminder of one’s own mortality and how short one’s time really is.
That’s when that quote from the great Dr. House haunts me. That picture perfect scene you see in movies where everyone gathers around the bed of a loved one as they slip off into eternal slumber? It never happens. It’s always messy. Maybe you spend a couple months in a brain dead coma. Maybe you live your last hours knowing your immune system is succumbing to the cancer. Whatever it is, it’s always ugly. Always.
Sam Costello’s Split Lip is a horror comic that contains ghosts and murderers and monsters. And yet, it’s the unflinching depiction of death and dying that I find most chilling.
Split Lip is a horror short story anthology series, all written by Sam Costello. Each story are about 10 to 20 pages in length. The first story, “The Executioner is a Lonely Man,” is one of those Twilight Zone ironies where there’s a huge “Gotcha!” twist at the end. While entertaining, the story isn’t the best representation of the typical Split Lip story. For that, you have to proceed to the second story, entitled “An Old Man, Looking.”
A man recalls a time when he was a child, and he saw an old, floating, goblin-like man hovering near his dying mother. He tries to tell his father. For his troubles, he gets yelled at. It seems flights of fantasy are the last thing his father wants to hear during a family crisis.
Our child grows up to be a young man. He sees a therapist, who explains away his issues as a coping mechanism for overwhelming situations. The man agrees happily.
Now our young man has grown up, and he now has a family of his own. His little girl, though, is sick and dying. One night, or protagonist catches a glimpse of the old man again. The goblin man approaches the daughter, and the father is powerless to do anything to stop him. As our goblin man reaches the little girl’s face, he turns to look at our protagonist with a wicked grin on his face and a finger to his lips.
Several themes will show up again in later Split Lip stories. The appearance of an inexplicable paranormal entity. The paranoid isolation that comes from being chastised for telling the truth, yet a truth that no one wants to hear or refuses to accept. That final scene, though, is the one that haunts me the most: death is quick, sudden, and unresolved. These, and not the boogeymen, are the real things you should be scared about.
The other thing you should be scared of? Eating. Quite a few of stories are about things that end up in your mouth. Spiders, mainly. But sometimes, meat that may or may not be human flesh.
Split Lip rarely has a happy ending … and the ones that don’t end in tragedy probably work best as black comedy. If someone commits suicide because of a cheating lover, all we see is the victim get buried with no retribution to the man who broke her heart. If a woman is stuck in a haunted house, there’s never a possibility that she will ever get out. Or if a kid’s imagination is corrupted by none other than Ed Gein, he’s scarred for life. Split Lip can be unrelentingly pessimistic.
Case in point: “The Wind and The Rain“. The story features two sisters, and it reads like a Grimm brothers fairy tale. One sister is very much in love with the miller’s son. The second sister, who is the eldest, becomes jealous to the point of rage. While they’re out on a walk next to a river bank, the older sister pushes her younger sister in. The younger sister calls for help, but the older sister refuses. The younger sister drowns. Her body floats by the house of her beloved. In grief, the miller’s son chops up her body and turns her remains into a fiddle. You expect some sort of retribution to happen. Perhaps the older sister gets a violent comeuppance. Or maybe the beloved gets at least angrily scolded for mutilating a dead woman’s body. That retribution never comes.
As you move on to the next story, you feel a sickening sensation form in the pit of your stomach.
Sam Costello pairs himself up with several artists who draw in distinctive and dissimilar styles. Most only illustrate one story. Their styles range from borderline surreal to cartoony to realistic. Sami Makkonen, one of the few to illustrate three stories, draws simple images that seem like the hazy recollections of a dream. The latest artist, Erik Rose, draws in photorealistic detail, which definitely contributes to his visceral and gruesome imagery. One of the most interesting aspects of Split Lip is watching how each artist plays to his or her strengths while following Mr. Costello’s strong authorial voice.
The transitions from artist to artist is generally smooth as the change-overs coincide with the tonal shifts at the beginning of each new story. While most take place in the familiar modern day urban environment, Costello stretches his writing skills to try new places and settings. A few of the tales are set in the past, such as the Wild West, the Great Depression, and the era of tall sailing ships (which was adapted from a Jack London story). There’s an odd story about a man who looks a lot like a famous fictional archaeologist with a trademark fedora. A couple have some science fiction elements. It’s like a modern version of EC Comics: horror stories of all shapes and sizes illustrated with fantastic artwork.
Not all the stories work, by the way. Some are just plain confounding. Take “Termites in Your Smile,” for instance. The story starts off with a guy bragging to his friend about bedding two different women. Both are sort of shy. Both also, for some reason, are from the same apartment room, whose room number plaque is covered in a bunch of sticky notes. So the guy’s living the high life, and he goes home.
Care to guess what happens?
What the hell. The story contains the most visual representation of the webcomic’s title, though admittedly more than the man’s lips get split. But how does this work? Perhaps my brain was having difficulty understanding the equation of how annoying womanizer plus two women equals two ghost women and half of a dude’s face falling off. Was this a metaphor for STD’s or something? That’s the most sense I could make of the story.
However, most of the stories in Split Lip do hold up. If you’re looking for something frightening that, at the same time, makes you ponder deep thoughts about mortality, the comic as a whole is well worth the read. The short story format holds up well. While the endings do tend to feel abrupt, anything longer would likely dilute the power of shock and fear. Split Lip is dark and brutal, and, like a Richard Bachman novel, there’s no one there to hold your hand and tell you everything’s all right… but what can you do? That’s life.
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)