Shuck Unmasked

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Shuck Unmasked, by Rick Smith and Tania Menesse.
Top Shelf Productions, 2003

I haven’t fallen in love with a comic book this way since I picked up Vampire Loves — the first comic I ever read by Joann Sfar, and still my favorite. Both books treat mainstays of horror fiction in a distinctly non-horror fashion. In a sweet fashion, even. Sfar’s book is about a vampire, obviously, while Smith and Menesse write about The Devil. At least, I think it’s The Devil, with a capital Tee and a capital Dee, but he isn’t in charge of hell, or anything else. In fact, he’s retired, and would like to stay that way.

The best way I can think of to describe the tone of the book is “Walt Kelly meets Neil Gaiman”. The Gaimanesque part is the use of multiple mythologies and folklores — especially the references to all the mythologies that contribute to the Western, Christian conceptions of The Devil: Pan, The Horned God, Beelzebub, Azazel and the practice of scapegoating, cultural beliefs about crossroads. And then we get Ganesha, Gaia, Neopaganism, the old Catholic belief in Purgatory (well, sorta), and even a Hand of Glory. Yippee!!

I’m not going to offer an opinion (because I don’t know) on whether the above legends are referenced in a correct way or not — or even if the authors wanted to reference them in a correct way. I’ll just say I got most of the references, so they are at least consistent with popular understandings of the legends, if not strictly mythologically sound.

The Walt Kellyesque aspects of the book are its childlike illustration style and its use of “regional” dialect. Although I couldn’t tell you what region it’s supposed to be. I guess somewhere in the American South, though that might just be the association I’m making with Walt Kelly (Pogo was set in the Okefenokee Swamp, on the Georgia-Florida border). The use of dialect is cute, and it does contribute to the overall atmosphere of the book, but it also has problems.

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Mr. Shuck, Jamara the talking cat, and Jamara’s owner, little Thursday Friday
The full page is here.

I suggest you read this book in the privacy of your home or backyard, or among friends who love and understand you, because not only is it (1) a comic book, and (2) a comic book with an especially cutesy illustration style, but (3) you will probably have to move your lips while reading it in places, to sound out the dialogue. The words in the dialogue bubbles are broken up on phonemic boundaries, not always word boundaries, leading to inventions like “we could be cussin may hemmed” for “we could be causin’ mayhem”. It didn’t slow me down much, but I would imagine this could be difficult for a non-native speaker of English. It might even be difficult to native English speakers not accustomed to American pronunciations, but I’m not really in a position to say.

The story: Mr. Shuck (real name — The Sulfurstar) used to be in charge of guarding the souls in Purgatory (which looks a lot like Hell); before that, he worked a spell as a soul collector, granting humans their wishes if they sold their soul to a “permanent sentence” in Purgatory. He quit his guard job when his wife Gaia sold her soul in order to save a grove of trees, so as not to watch her suffering every day in the fire and brimstone. Now he lives in a small town, next door to a single mother named Hedge Friday, her daughter Thursday Friday, and Thursday’s talking cat Jamara. He wears the mask of a kindly old man so as not to frighten the Fridays or the rest of the town. Only Jamara knows Mr. Shuck’s true aspect.

But the souls in Purgatory get their new guard drunk, and bust out. And now Purgatory’s management wants Mr Shuck to take his old job back.

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Mr. Shuck (in his mask) explains to Thursday why he puts out dinner settings for the dead on Halloween.
The full page is here.

The narrative is a tad muddled — are Purgatory and Hell the same place? It seems everyone goes to Purgatory temporarily after they die, to “serve their sentence”; I guess Hell just means never getting out of Purgatory. What is the relationship between Sulfurstar and the witches? They predate him, so how can he have been the foundation of their cult? Was that Sulfurstar’s mother in the New Age bookstore? Is Mr. Shuck still responsible for bringing the spring (Pan was the god of spring) — even though he’s retired and disgraced?

Still, the central theme, about friendships and being honest about who you are, comes through. I think anyone who is a little bit into mythology can probably invent their own solutions for the things that don’t seem completely clear on the first reading. Or, they can read it again for what they might have missed the first time.

It was sweet, and light, and I enjoyed the heck out of it. The adventures of Shuck continue, and you can read the comics online, or order print copies, at Shuck*Sulfurstar Comics.

Recommended.

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