I’m not a social creature by nature. This is not news to anyone. I’ll make the effort when I have to. And no more. The internet was seemingly built with people like me in mind, those with little social graces in person, but able to occasionally articulate when not connected face to face. One of the best things about social media are the concentric circles of people you meet, who in turn know different circles, and bring them into your sphere. That’s how I first became aware of the work of Jesse Gutierrez out of Arizona. I saw a post of his art on in a group on Facebook devoted to Mexican horror films. I don’t remember the exact piece now, but I think it involved vampiric sacrifices, and possibly an Aztec Mummy. And it got me following his work.
At Free Comic Book Day this past May 2, he announced copies available of his newest comic book, THE PHANTOM OF THE BARRIO #1 and posted a picture of the very striking, very boldly orange and red, cover art. I was hooked in like a fat sassy catfish. Within a few days, I had copy of the book in my possession. The first thing I noticed was that it was not the traditional smaller sized comic book, but magazine sized with wide white margins across the cover and the interior black and white pages. It’s intimidating when I first opened the package. I think from the title and the cover, I was expecting a play on Gaston Leroux’s THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA. Certainly the mask conjures up images of Lon Chaney, Sr. as Erik in the 1925 silent. On the other side of my mind was perhaps this Phantom was a distaff cousin to the 1960s European comic book anti-heroes like Diabolik and Kriminal with their international exploits. I was tantalizingly wrong on both counts though. This PHANTOM is a homegrown Arizona giallo with an opening seven page sequence that plays like a marriage of the extended over-the-house murder sequence in Dario Argento’s TENEBRAE mixed with the disturbing opening murder of Argento’s DEEP RED with their mix of the mundane and oppressive bleakness. The panel angles Gutierrez chooses work well to build the tension, and draw the reader into his malevolent world.
The book is not simply a pastiche of Italian giallo riffs however, even with a lead named Dario. His unnamed city, the Barrio of the title, takes on a character all its own with its Old World Spanish architecture mixed in with the modern, both in the city square and the homes of the idle rich we see. It’s not Italy, but it’s not Arizona, or particularly Mexico, seemingly a dream world of ancient and moderne, where our heroine, Magdalene can text on her phone in a 60s luxury car and live in a 19th Century gothic mansion complete with a florid filigreed gate.. Gutierrez neatly sets up his city outside of time, grafting the time periods together to create the world of his Phantom, much like the 60s adventures of Santo, like EL TESORO DE DRÁCULA, or the Bruce Timm helmed BATMAN.
PHANTOM #1 tracks like the opening of a giallo, with its move from set piece to set piece, murder followed by escape followed by a party scene, and some misdirection, the hallmark of the frenzied. When is it Dario? When is it the Phantom? It’s all held together by Gutierrez’s pencils and few deft dialogue panels. For the most though, Gutierrez lets his art take the lead, as we get hints of a nouveau riche actress and her daughter, the use of costuming and doubling at the costume party taking center stage. From there, the first issue ends in Dario and Magdalene observed by the Phantom. Be warned, this is an adult book, and would, as Lenzi or Fulci, carry an R-rating were it a film. But this is handled naturally and follows many of the traditional tropes of giallo, the coupling, the observation, while still being strikingly Gutierrez work and not simply pastiche.
I developed a quick fondness for Gutierrez style –the dark, almost florid, marker blacks mixed with his thin pencil line, the grey hues of his shading. When so many comics seem processed to the point of being inhuman, akin to the CGI flatlining of reality in so many films these days, this is very tactile, alive, hand-drawn art. Some of the panels you can feel the ink seeping off of them, especially in the splash page of Dario’s entrance into la Casa del Fuego. Gutierrez also eschews computer lettering for his handwritten words – giving the work a further personal touch. It’s obvious this is a labor of love for Gutierrez.
Is THE PHANTOM OF THE BARRIO a must read book? Perhaps not. Your love of the Italian-style giallo thriller will predicate that. Your love of homegrown horror will predicate that. Is it as an example of the amazing work being done out there by artists putting together their own books? It most certainly is. You would do well to check out what Jesse Gutierrez putting together out there. Gutierrez doesn’t have a website, just his Facebook account: http://www.facebook.com/jesse.gutierrez.7186 and a page for his company, Bandido Studios: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Bandido-Studios-Comics-Art/530591547078097?fref=ts
Check them out for some good old-fashioned homegrown terror.