Satan's 3-Ring Circus of Hell (Graphic Novel)
Written by Robert Steven Rhine
Published by Asylum Press
Horror lends itself well to quick cutting tales that can be spun out in a mere moment's notice. From campfire tales to the ever popular short story format, a good scare can be set up and delivered within no time, and we all live for that brief burst of bloody bumps in the night. This roller coaster is always one we are ready and willing to jump onto at a second's notice.
In the end it all plays like a joke: the setup, the build-up, and the payoff. Maybe that's why humor plays so well with horror; the two have a cocaine-like addiction to timing. You need to have just the right set of circumstances to get the proper payoff. Fortunately for us, the humor that mixes with horror is most oft the sickest type imaginable.
Author Robert Steven Rhine is a sick man. He is the guy your mother may not have liked for you to hang around or the dude your wife wishes you would stop inviting over. His brain is bubbling with a series of gore-geous grand guignol gags that just sizzle on the hot coals of comic book hell. His latest anthology, Satan's 3-Ring Circus of Hell, shows that he has serious issues and torrents of torrid tales to tell.
These are the types of stories you used to read about as a kid and then rush to tell your friends. There's a definite EC style to the whole setup, but there is no education to be had with anything in-between the two covers of this tome. There are, rather, plenty of beheadings, fungi, guts, girls, and fun, fun, fun!
Attracting a huge list of "who’s who" of comic artists to add either a story or a bit of one-sheet madness, Rhine’s collection of crazies has names such as William Stout, Tim Vigil, John Cassaday, Jim Smith, Steve Bissette, and many more. Each has such differing styles and substance that it is impossible for the eye to get bored. There is something to please everyone. Some of the art, however, is a bit thick in its design and a bit distracting, entries like "Lezbots", where each panel is so full of color and form it becomes difficult to differentiate what is going on. Others have simplistic interpretations to assist in the creation of their stories. The use of black and white is at its base effectiveness in stories like "Spare Parts", but the colorless medium reaches bloody goodness in the best of the book, "The Fungus Among Us", wherein the richness of the textures and the depth of the detail add to a story that just keeps getting more fun as it, er... grows.
Nenad Gucina takes us through a population problem in hell that results in a royal rumble with very odd bedfellows in "Hell’s Bells". I like the scratchy hand animation meets rich color that blasts across the pulp as the monkey in the middle of your head story "Monkey Grinder", a showcase of David Hartman’s bloody good work. Tim and Joe Vigil sketch out "Gas Pains", but their attempt left me wanting. The story was interesting, but the panels and the work inside of them never sold the whole idea to me.
"Separation Anxiety" has Frank Forte drawing us into the world of freak love and desires gone awry. The art has a muted color scheme that fits perfectly into the story, but the facial perspective distortions are a bit much and get to be distracting. "Zombie Eating Contest" should be more fun, but a series of one-hit wonder panels give the story a lackluster punch. It reads akin to watching one of those quick-cut fight scenes in films where you can’t tell what is going on. D. W. Frydendall does the deed here.
Bryan Baugh brings in the pop with the brightly lit "Party Clown". Another warning on getting clowns on the cheap, it is one of the most dazzling as far as hue, but simple in design. "Out on a Limb" is just as simple in story as the former was in form, but the flow of Steph Dumais' work is hard to follow or focuses on the oddest of details, leaving the cutting on the outs.
"The Monochromatic Love Doll" fills the page with deadly details as it pours out Jacob Hair’s wonderful work. The story of a teleportation experiment has inflated results that will definitely please. The old "Stone Soup" tale goes to Sweeney Todd school and results in "Bone Soup". Here Frank Forte is much better with his work as he carves out on the page again in muted tones that make me recall old woodcuts.
Mark Covell’s "Sam or I" is a one-joke jab with a nice polished look. Tone Rodriguez tackles "Anna" in black and white. The story is a short and sweet tale of revenge, love, and really big snakes. One of my favorites is the Forte filled funfest, "The Symposium". A nice twist on a vampire tale and old Gothic horror, it's a story you can sink your brain and teeth into.
Jim Keplinger goes with a decidedly cartoonish look for the comic strip looking "Cirque du Soul". We get two trips to the office of Dr. Narcolepsy. Do I even need to connect the dots on what is going to happen here? Both entries are by Kevin Colden.
What can be more scary than plastic surgery? I really didn't know the answer to that until I read "The Roast". David Paleo gets the grotesque goods a gushin’ in this tale of a whole bunch of the plastic factory that the good docs in Beverly Hills wouldn’t want as testimonials. The art starts cool and builds to a hot climax that takes itself to the breaking point.
The first few beautiful frames of the "Tattoo Artist" are all one needs to see in this sin is only skin deep story of a man who, when bilked on his services, goes to collect. Rich Longmore details the proceedings. Steve Mannion’s very cartoony "Haunted Hood" is as silly as ghost stories get. Longmore returns for the clinical trials of "Fast Acting Xilotripimene", a real tale from the crypt about the dirty little secrets that the FDA does not usually air.
"Boneyard Tours" feels like more fun than it is. A longer story, it doesn’t have the legs to hold up in the middle of such a collection. Jacob Hair’s illustrations work well, but the whole project feels a bit undercooked. Nenad Gucunja’s "Skinned Deep" is a sick gross-out that deals with the worst of women just needin’ a bit of the old high hard one. Slick images help deliver us into the evil.
The short story of the "Propeller Boy", several more stories, and a lot of retro nostalgia ads that are not quite what they appear to be add to the flavor of the mixture here. On their own, I realize that the stories themselves are not much to bark at, but the whole showcase is so overwhelming as a presentation that Satan’s Circus succeeds as a whole. It is more than the sum of its parts.
A real gripe is the fact that Rhine has to label himself over everything in the book. Each story has a credit area for the artist(s) who do the piece, but this is ALWAYS accompanied by Rhine’s name. In the forward and introduction we get the idea that Rhine is responsible for each of the stories in the book. It's annoyingly redundant to keep putting your name on all of them in the book. Kind of like title cards in a film that is "directed by", "written by", and "produced by" all the same person.
That minor gripe aside, I really enjoyed the one-way trip to hell that Satan's took me on. I think Robert Steven Rhine is a person I would never want to introduce my children to, and he should probably be examined for some sort of mental imbalance, but I say this with the most loving of tones. He spins a great yarn. Believe me. I have seen what he has in his head...I ain’t gonna poke that bear!
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