Today, Taylor and Michael are discussing Belfry, originally released February 22nd, 2017. As always, this article contains SPOILERS.
Taylor: One of my favorite bits of trivia about the very first Alien movie is that the titular monster doesn’t appear in its full form until an hour into the movie. Even after this first appearance, the alien is on screen for less than four minutes total. This trivia caught me by surprise when I first heard it. After all, the alien scared the hell out of me and has become a symbol of sci-fi horror. But the dread the xenomorph inspires is precisely because of how unseen it is. Not knowing where, or exactly what a xenomorph is, is exactly why it’s so terrifying. These thoughts on Alien and what makes a good horror story were in my mind after reading Gabriel Hardman’s Belfry both because of its triumphs and in shortcomings.
Belfry is a one-off issue both written and drawn by Gabriel Hardman that is a labor of love. In his afterword to the issue, Hardman tells us he wrote Belfry because he wanted to explore writing a very short story in a genre that he loves: horror. The result is an issue that is successful in some places but lacking in others.
The story itself is pretty straightforward. A pilot named Bill wakes up after crash landing his passenger plane on a mysterious jungle island. Almost immediately, it becomes clear to Bill that this island is no tropical paradise. Just after regaining consciousness, Bill finds out why his plane crashed.
Smashed into the plane’s cockpit is a terrifying half bat, half human creature. This creature wastes no time in attacking Bill and giving him the ol’ vampire love bite before flying away. This is an exhilarating start to the issue, but it has the unintended side effect of revealing the monster in this horror story. With the reveal coming so early, it’s hard for the issue to carry much suspense throughout the rest of the issue, as it’s already known what type of monster we’re dealing with. Unlike Alien, which builds tension by withholding information about its monster, Belfry dissipates any tension immediately by showing us what Bill is up against right from the start.
It’s hard to blame Hardman for failing to build a lot of tension into his narrative though. Building tension in a horror story takes time and trying to do so in less than thirty pages is perhaps too tall of a task for any writer. That being said, maybe the benefits of opening the issue with a bang outweigh the Herculean task of writing a scary story in 30 pages.
This issue of story length plagues, and also benefits, Belfry in other aspects. Later in the issue Bill, his girlfriend, and the rest of the crash survivors are abducted by the weird human-bat creatures living on the island and trap them in a cage. Once there, Bill meets an eyeless, human servant of the bat creatures.
This servant tells Bill that the bites he and the other passengers received on their neck will either turn them into more bat creatures or it won’t. If they don’t transform, then their eyes are put out and they serve the creatures for the rest of their lives. This eyeless character is interesting and his story practically demands to be told. Where did he come from? How long has he been here? What does he do for the bat creatures? I want all of these questions to be answered, but the page count dictates that they can’t. While that’s great at generating interest, it makes you wonder why this character, along with others such as Bill’s copilot and his girlfriend are even in the story at all. In a story lasting only thirty pages, things need to be sparse and there isn’t much room to explore one character and problem, much less four.
This is a quibble though, and to look too hard into a labor of love for Hardman is perhaps a bit unfair, especially when he gets a lot right in this story. Hardman proclaims his love for the horror genre at the end of the issue along with a suggested reading list. It’s clear he’s done his homework because the ending to Belfry is textbook in its execution. After transforming into a bat creature himself, Bill escapes his prison to freedom. However, his flight is short lived.
Just as in so many other horror stories, there is a twist ending. Here, Bill crashes into a plane, ostensibly starting the whole cycle of the story over again. As with any number of horror stories, one of the truly scary things about them is that they don’t come to a satisfying resolution. Yes, the story ends, but knowing that these bat creatures are still out there about to torture another passenger plane again is a nice little twist to the ending of this issue.
Michael, there are things I both liked and didn’t like so much about Belfry. Do you think that’s due to it being a one-off issue? I didn’t mention Hardman’s artwork at all, what do you think of his style? Does it lend itself well to the horror genre? Oh, and how much of this issue owes its ideas to the Man-Bat character in Batman?
Michael: As much as I love me some Kirk Langstrom, I’m hard-pressed to say that any of this was derived from the Man-Bat, besides the obvious physical resemblance. To be honest, Belfry didn’t really catch my favor the first time around. I found Hardman’s muddy and murky color pallette to be a little confusing, making it hard to focus on what was actually going on in a given scene. Though this is kind of a double-edged sword, as that color palette is the exact kind of aesthetic that a horror story should possess. I understand that the characters in a horror story should be disoriented and unaware, but I felt almost as much in the dark as they were. Perhaps that’s because this is a horror story that doesn’t answer a whole lot of questions.
I don’t consider myself a master when it comes to horror storytelling, but there typically comes a part near the third act where our protagonist survivors uncover the horrible truth of the “why.” They find out why the killer in the mask wants them dead, why the cult of oddball neighbors wants to worship your baby or why the motel manager dresses up like a woman. Don’t get me wrong; I tend to get frustrated when someone wants “all of the lingering questions answered,” but Belfry doesn’t answer any.
Maybe I’m playing by an odd set of rules here that Gabriel Hardman himself is not adhering to. Maybe all there is to know about the bat-people of Belfry is that they’re bat-people. But as Taylor pointed to above, there is the case of the blind manservant. This suggests that there’s some kind of hierarchy on their little island: mighty-winged creatures and their blind, flightless slaves.
This little tease became even more frustrating when I learned that Belfry was a one-shot and the question would never be answered. I’d rather not spend the majority of a write-up speculating, but in this instance Hardman leaves me little choice. What the manservant does explain to Bill, Janet and the other captives is that their options are to either turn or be blinded. From the manservant’s little monologue about being starved for conversation we can assume that either he’s been the only servant or that all of the other servants are dead and he’s what’s left behind.
So the whole of Belfry might not exactly be the comic for me but there were some things about it that I enjoyed. First and foremost, I love the sad coincidence of the ending. That Bill becomes a bat-person and crashes into a plane — thus causing them to endure the horror that Bill and his people did — reminds me of many tragic endings to short stories.
In the larger scope I agree with Taylor in saying that Belfry might’ve shown its hand too soon in showing the bat-lady on the fourth page. On a smaller scale however it’s a nice little surprise. The initial crash scene that Hardman draws Bill waking up to makes it look as if he’s the only one who survived the crash — at least in the cockpit.
The following pages reveal that the naked woman corpse that crashed into the cockpit window is alive and a creature of the night. We also discover that Captain Anvers is alive, despite him having a tree branch lodged in his left eye.
In addition to the opening and closing bat/plane crashes, the Captain’s gouged eye is nice bit of symmetry present in Belfry. In an ironic role reversal, the “vampires” in this story are the ones armed with stakes to plunge into their prey. Still no clue as to why they go for the humans’ eyes — perhaps because they’re easier to enslave that way? Something bad happens to the bats when they’re gazed upon too long?
Bill’s transformation into a bat-person was the height of tension at the climax of the story. All of his friends have been blinded and he’s next until…TRANSFORM! This bit here reminded me of a story from X-Men where latent mutations can be induced under conditions of high stress and pain. Actually, I think it was the Deadpool movie…oh well, still counts!
What might have been my favorite part of Belfry is the additional material that Hardman provides at the end. I’m quite fond of listening to director’s commentaries for my favorite films — seeing the early stages of a project, what influenced them etc. On that level I appreciated Hardman expressing to us directly what Belfry meant to him as a horror fan.
I enjoyed the early sketches he made of the bat creatures and his praise of the I Am Legend book might have just piqued my interest in that story. Because, fuck the Will Smith movie, right?
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