by Ryan Mogge and Patrick Ehlers
This article contains SPOILERS. If you haven’t read the issue yet, proceed at your own risk!
Ryan M: Writing in the point of view of a sociopath creates a set of problems. They will never have the kind of human connection or emotional growth that ground most stories. It’s why most serial killer stories are from the perspective of the detective on the case. It’s easy to alienate the audience when you allow a sociopath to tell the story. When these characters express an earnest truth about themselves, rather than make them more sympathetic, it emphasizes what’s “wrong” with them. Often, weaving in an undercurrent of irony or dark humor can make the character easier to take. Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho breaks up graphic tales of murder with pop music critiques. A tale of horror must offer the reader a break from the evil or suffer a tediousness that lessens the impact of the darkest moments. In Chilling Adventures of Sabrina 7, Roberto Aquirre-Sacasa and Robert Hack use humor to give release as Edward Spellman tells his life story.
Edward has just emerged from witch-limbo. As he eats Harvey’s father, he tells Harvey’s mom his story. Edward was an acolyte of the Church of Night whose skill as a conjuror, as well as his willingness to deceive, allowed him to rise up the ranks to become Head Priest. He finds, marries and impregnates a mortal and, when Sabrina is just a child, is sent away by his sisters for his fraudulent behavior.
The first of these broad gags includes Edward’s character design. Hack depicts little Eddie as a replica of Eddie Munster. Hack and Aquirre-Sacasa underline the joke a few times to make sure that anyone who might get it, will.
The character design is spot on, with the hair and the wardrobe matching perfectly. Eddie Munster’s widow’s peak is in full effect. The combination of using a pop culture icon and the depiction of a baby face make the childhood sections of Edward’s story easy to follow. He doesn’t look like a monster who will one day eat a man in front of his wife. Instead, each time he turns his hopeful eyes onto Father Constant, the reader is encouraged to want this little tyke to succeed.
It takes a certain amount of distraction to forget that this character bookends wth issue with cannibalism. It’s a natural instinct for a reader to want to see a protagonist succeed and Aquirre-Sacasa offers a baby-faced Edward who so clearly wants to please his father figure. By incorporating the kind of motivations and behaviors that feel universal, he is able to keep the book from veering into an exercise of portraying evil.
The structure of the Church of Night itself is another source of the quasi-levity that allows the darker elements of the story to exist without getting overwhelming. When Eddie assures Father Constant that the crosses are upside down and the candles are extinguished, it functions less as insight into how a Satan-centered church would operate and more of a way to joke about a church that is literally the opposite of a Christian one. Because Aquirre-Sacasa plays these moments honestly, the jokes enhance the would by introducing a subtext of goofiness even as evil and murder abound.
Hack also keeps us on our toes by setting up small moments of horror that exist outside the thrust of the story. When Eddie interrupts a Church dinner, there is a naked women trussed and bout to to be sacrificed.
Her eyes plead from the center of the panel, but her existence is not the primary purpose of the panel, the scene or even the story. Hack is building out the world and making it more exciting by dropping a bit that rewards the reader for playing close attention.
In other instances, Hack’s art is a vehicle to undermine Edward’s story. When he claims that his paramour Iona jumped to her death, the imagery implies that the death wasn’t self inflicted but rather a result of Edward being done with her.
As her body is torn apart, Iona looks back at Edward as he stands behind the railing. Hack adds a more manic dimension to the lion den panel with red marks covering Iona and the lions alike. Edward mentions that his reasoning for abandoning Iona was likely related to her inability to conceive.
Patrick, what did you think? The issue deals with religion and the dangers thereof explicitly. How effective was the commentary for you? How about the way Zelda and Hilda were handled? If you could summon any demon to your attic, what would it be?
Patrick: While it’d be cool to be able to summon demons, I’m mostly just excited by the prospect of having an attic! What are we talking — a two bedroom townhouse with a wrap-around patio? I’m getting a grill and probably a hammock! Which demon can help me with that?
I actually really like Zelda and Hilda in this issue. At every turn, they are (apparently) the only members of the church that have the conviction to resist their lying, manipulating, scheming little brother. Even when “Satan” eventually appears, Zelda mutters that she is “biting [her] forked tongue.” Not only is that one of Aguirre-Sacasa’s delightfully evocative turns of phrase, but the snake imagery of the forked tongue foreshadows their own deception later in the issue. The Spellmans are, effectively, all about conjuring — it’s what their family is known for. And while the magic itself is impressive, this whole story sets up the expectation that it is how the magic is used that brings about real change and power. Summoning a shape-shifting demon who claims to be Satan in order to get his endorsement for Dark Pope is a genius-level move, and Zelda and Hilda resent the little fucker for it. Their revenge is a kind of inversion of summoning, expelling Edward to the same kind of limbo from which he’s been summoning demons.
And perspective-of-the-narrator be damned, Aguirre-Sacasa and Hack have their own thoughts on who has a more natural control of the art of summoning. When Eddie is practicing his craft, it’s all drawings on the ground, literally compared to mathematical proofs. But Hilda and Zelda bounce their bro into the body of a 16 year old boy through much more traditional witchly means. They drag him out to the woods, and dance naked around him as they perform the spell. The tree that swallows Edward has an upsettingly be-toothed vaginal quality to it.
Hilda and Zelda are motherfucking witches. Eddie’s just some dork who did the homework.
Which isn’t to say that Edward Spellman isn’t a threat in his own right, but we can’t ignore the fact that his general cleverness has made him blind to variety of threats around him. He didn’t see Hilda and Zelda coming at all, and the final pages take a quick tour of what else has been happening in this series to remind the reader of all the other threats Edward faces in the body of Harvey Kinkle — not least of which is Madame Satan.
This is the only time she appears in the issue. Being that she’s only viewing the proceedings, she has about as active a role in the story as the reader. Her appearance also triggers all sorts of amazing reversals of expectation simultaneously in a single panel. First there’s the fact that she’s looking into a mirror, but we don’t see her reflection. The mirror is magically displaying Harvey-Edward’s awakening, but we’d expect to be able to see her face — but wait… we do sorta see her face resting on that mannequin head. She teases “soon you’ll see me, but not yet.” So is the reader Madam Satan or is the reader Edward?
Of course the whole thing is in a lurch because this is Madam Satan we’re talking about. Not only is she a terrifying presence under the best of circumstances, we’ve just read a story about how Edward Spellman made his name off a fraudulent endorsement from the Morning Star himself. That might be the biggest joke of the issue, a cannibalistic Edward Spellman in the body of his teenage daughter’s boyfriend isn’t the biggest threat in the world.
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