Publisher: Iron Shod Ape
Writer/Artist: Gareth Sleightholme
We’ve been huge fans of Gareth Sleightholme’s work here at the Big Comic Page for quite some time now, particularly his contributions to Ake’s Tale and The Kings Leap, both published by Madius Comics. So, with a new chapter in his ongoing Cthulhiad saga set for release at this weekend’s Thought Bubble Festival in Leeds, we figured now was as good a time as any to take a look back at some of his previous work.
Firstly, a little context – The Cthuliad, Sleighthomle’s ongoing passion project, succinctly described as “existential horror… with tentacles”, is a sprawling, ambitious affair, although we should expect no less from such a clearly passionate creator. And right from the opening pages of the first book we read, “The Severed Head Cult”, it feels like we’re diving headlong into a rich, fully-realised world. Now this could potentially feel a little disorienting, like we’re struggling to keep up or have missed an important part of the story, but after a few pages it’s easy to settle into the unconventional style and focus on what’s happening directly in front of you.The main narrative of the Severed Head Cult story ostensibly deals with mermaids, although not the Walt Disney-esque versions you may be familiar with. This is a far more primal, animalistic interpretation of the mermaid mythology, and Sleightholme has an absolute blast embracing the deeply unsettling horror of these macabre creations throughout the course of this multi-pronged story.
Vanitas, the second book we picked up, deals with such varied themes as self-delusion, the inherently futile nature of humanity and… uh… buying a hat. Again, it’s a sprawling, verbose book, but its impact is likely to be felt long after you’ve put it down – providing you’re willing to give it a chance, that is.
As eloquent and inventive as the writing is, it’s Sleightholme’s artwork which is clearly going to provide the main selling point for the Cthulhiad. Intricately detailed and packed with expression and dynamism, there’s also an unusually raw approach to his black and white pages here, particularly compared to his slightly more polished recent work. The layouts are bold and dynamic, and Sleightholme takes great pleasure in playing around with the form, whether through lettering which bursts out of the panels or mezmerising prose interludes which gradually shrink away to nothingness like crazy, horror-themed eye tests.
There’s a wonderfully abstract nature to some of the storytelling beats that Sleightholme employs throughout the course of the two volumes, leaping back and forth in time and punctuating his story with supplementary information and enjoyable diversions. Again, this could be hugely disorienting to some, but for me Sleightholme makes it work with an earnest, detailed style of writing and a strong thematic thread which manages to keeps all the otherwise disparate parts anchored together.
Each volume almost feels like an anthology at times, albeit an anthology set in a shared world, and it’s by virtue of this unusual approach that The Cthulhiad is likely to either live or die. Casual readers looking for a cleaner, more conventional style of storytelling are likely to feel bewildered and lost, with Sleightholme’s frequently overwrought dialogue slowing down the reading experience to a snail’s pace before ramping things up again during the occasional flurries of action.
If I’m being honest, The Cthulhiad is a pretty damn challenging series to review, or even to describe, but therein lies its true appeal. In a world of quick, efficient storytelling and conventional three-act structures, the Cthulhiad stands alone like a bewildering tower of Lovecraftian passion and excess. Challenging to read and gorgeous to look at, this is a series designed to reward the patient, and with the latest chapter, “Issue, Zero, Origins”, set to go on sale this weekend, I honestly can’t recommend picking it up highly enough.
Gareth will have all his wares – including Issue, Zero, Origins – available for purchase at Thought Bubble this weekend. Make sure to follow him on twitter at @hesir for all the latest news on his upcoming appearances and how to get your hands on his books.