It’s long been the province of comics and cartoonists to probe the nasty. Even Charles Schultz, creator of Peanuts, and long regarded as one of the nicest men you could ever hope to meet, liked to use Charlie Brown and his buddies to shock and surprise his world-wide readership (he came in for some flack in later years when his first unhappy marriage came to an end and he found love and happiness, the strip losing some if its edge many thought). There’s certainly a place for it – but I do wonder if Karrie Fransman’s debut graphic novel, The House that Groaned is maybe a little too nasty.
Barbara, a young would-be beautician, is new in town. Gabe, a sleazy estate agent sort, is showing her around a flat in a large Victorian conversion. She takes the flat and Barbara’s first night in a new house plays out like a précis of Fransman’s interests, sketching in miniature the book to come. Strange noises, sexual exhortation, weeping and drunken laughter ruin her sleep; she eventually gets up and takes a shower and we see her body and her mouth, when she brushes her teeth, in distinctive close-up. As she leaves the house for the day, she bumps into a neighbour in the hall, Janet, who runs a fat fighter’s club in her home, that day’s intake clogging the hallway artery. Janet’s class is being undermined by a strange bespectacled individual feeding the back row doughnuts. Later, having eaten a miserable salad herself, Janet is tormented by the Midnight Feast Front, who call in the night and describe the moist variety of food they’re currently tucking into. Next morning we meet Matt, who has trouble interacting with people and spends his days touching up photos of models on his laptop. It’s a dirty job but someone’s gotta do it. Saving the best until last, we also have Mrs Durbach who has long mastered the ability to camouflage herself in plain sight, Brian – who looks like a young George Michael and enjoys sex with diseased or disfigured individuals – and Marion, an obese lady who appears to be running round-the-clock orgies and food feasts at the top of the house.
Fransman’s sharp line seems to take an enthusiastic glee in rendering those things that she feels will excite or annoy – the cancer sufferer who graces an entire page, the white page of frames that illustrate Matt at his job, his cursor hovering over a model’s crotch, the enormous sex scene that dominates the climax of the book. The last fourteen or so pages of the book catch Fransman in full swing, with death and dismemberment on the one hand and quiet victory on the other. The fact that the last character to be seen appears to have wrested triumph from the jaws of disaster, and the fact that love appears to flourish in one unexpected place, tries but doesn’t quite offset the accidental murderer who earns a Cronenbergian vaginal wound on his arm. All told, The House that Groaned is a creaking suitcase of a book, over-filled and likely to give you a bout of sleeplessness like heartburn.
Any Cop?: It isn’t quite pleasure and it isn’t quite entertainment Fransman has managed to cram into the pages of her debut but I’ll certainly be watching, like a prurient neighbour from behind the net curtains, to see what she does next.