from Treehouse of Horror #17

written, drawn, and colored by Jim Woodring with some add’l dialog by Tom Dougherty. “Quilty as Sin” segment drawn by Max Badger.

Bongo Comics, 2011.

It never ceases to amaze me that every year, one of the best and most eclectic showcases of comic industry talent is the Simpson’s Treehouse of Horror. Over the years we have seen writing and art contributions from Mike Allred, Jeff Smith, Peter Bagge, Evan Dorkin, Mark Hamill (yes, that Mark Hamill), Garth Ennis, Dan Brereton, Gary Spencer Millidge (doing a From Hell parody in #9!), Pat Boone, Alice Cooper, Gene Simmons, Gene Colan, (take a breath now) Bernie Wrightson, John Severin, Al Williamson, Kyle Baker, Eric Powell, the out-of-left-field, brain-detonating extravaganza of altcomix Kramer’s Ergot artists in #15, Lemmy (!!), Glenn Fabry, and Gilbert Hernandez. (I may have already reached my 400 word quota here.)

Now, when I tell you that — of all the ones I’ve read — the Jim Woodring story in this issue is the best of them all, you need to know that that’s no small thing. This story is so incredible that I’m not going to review it — I have to analyze it, so SPOILER WARNINGS are in full effect.

“Harvest of Fear” is a 16-pager written and drawn by Jim Woodring. Treehouse of Horror comics are often funny. They’re not supposed to be actually scary except maybe they would be for little kids. (On the TV show, Marge came out and made a disclaimer before the very first “Treehouse” episode warning parents with small children.) This story, however, scared the shit out of me and had me cracking up at the same time.

On page 1, Bart finds an old poor-man’s-EC-knockoff comic called “Harvest of Fear” at a yard sale.

The story is drawn in the usual Simpsons manner, but — as with most Treehouse contributions — you can feel the fingerprints of the creator’s own style creeping in around the edges. With Woodring, that creates an unnerving tingle right around your solar plexus, like, “Ohhhh, shittt, something fucking bad’s gonna happen…” There’s one wordless panel in particular where Bart simply rides his bicycle up a hill, but the way it’s composed with a turtle on the path, the tree beside it, and hills in the background it could have just as easily been Frank on that bike.

(Frank in Springfield?)

Meanwhile in the dialog Woodring makes fun of himself and even his own alcoholism! “There’s something wrong… like it was drawn by a bunch of talentless psychos!” Bart says as he flips through the comic. Snake explains the company’s artists were: “broken-down old alcoholic hacks who hadn’t worked in years!” “Yeah, this stuff does look pretty shaky!”

Bart buys the comic and reads it that night. Now we get some stories from the actual comic he’s bought. They’re drawn in a faux-faux EC style with goofball 50s dialog. But when Johnny’s mom asks him, “Johnny, are you comfortable in your skin?” my Woodring alarms went off. It scares the hell out of Bart too (drawn in hilarious fashion I might add), but that’s not the juice of it. The second story begins with a non sequitur (?) panel of a Woodring-type slug creature bursting from a man’s face.

(It's a sitcom, folks! Note the added tension created by the deliberately unnatural/unhuman posture of the creature's host.)

Already I’m on edge. The story is about a kid who tries to buy some comics in town but finds they’ve all been bought up. He finds the man who bought them and is invited into the man’s house who says he bought the comics as “bait… for new friends… uh…” The kid is then shown into a dark room. The man turns on the light, the boy screams in sheer terror at… We don’t know what. The last page is torn out of Bart’s comic.

Bart learns from Comic Shop Guy that the artist Mort Hopper was so horrified by what he himself has drawn (sounds familiar somehow…) that he traveled around the country and cut out that last page of every copy printed. Bart locates Hopper and goes to visit him to find out what happens on that last page. It turns out Hopper’s motives were more sinister, pure evil in fact, as he morphs into — but then the last page of Treehouse is drawn as if torn out. We get a tattered left edge of the page, though, which provided just enough fragments of spine-gripping Woodring creatures and ripped off faces to leave me ashen-faced like Bart was in the middle of the comic.

The construction of the story is ingenious. It’s clever how the humor is front-ended and the first “Harvest” comic is kind of goofy, which puts us off-guard. And it doesn’t really have a title page and it doesn’t really end. It’s almost impossible to find the credits unless you trawl through the small print in the phony ads at the end. It’s almost like the story actually occurs IN REAL LIFE which of course was exactly the point. This damn story came out of the comic and into my life! And yet at the end I was laughing again despite myself at the goddamn audacity of it.

I didn’t read a lot of comics this year, but of the ones I did “Harvest of Fear” was certainly the one that gave me the biggest rush. It pushed all the right buttons — sometimes at the same time.

KS

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Kumar Sivasubramanian is the writer of Weird Crime Theater.