Review: ‘Calla Cthulhu’
Writers: Evan Dorkin and Sarah Dyer
Artists: Erin Humiston and Mario A. Gonzalez
Dark Horse Books; $12.99
The mythos of cosmic horror that H.P. Lovecraft created and curated during his short writing career has always proved a curiously inviting and creatively fertile milieu for other writers to work in, on, and around. This was partially because Lovecraft was such a brilliantly imaginative writer and partially because he was so far ahead of his time, but it’s also because from the very beginning Lovecraft borrowed characters and concepts from his favorite writers and engaged in similar exchanges with other, like-minded writers, somewhat accidentally creating what is perhaps popular culture’s earliest “shared universe” settings.
That universe has long proved irresistible to comics creators of all kinds, and as commonplace as Lovecraft-inspired comics have become, it’s generally worth noting—if not straight up celebrating—when creators find a new and unique angle. That’s just what the husband/wife writing team of Evan Dorkin and Sarah Dyer have managed to do. Calla Cthulhu is a modern fantasy action comic with the sort of protagonist that even Lovecraft never could have imagined, given the prejudices and biases that ruled his worldview: A kick-ass young woman. (Almost everything I’ve seen in writing about Calla Cthulhu mentions Buffy The Vampire Slayer; I don’t think that’s necessarily fair or accurate, but since Buffy is such an easy reference point, it’s not hard to see why writers keep making that connection.)
The title is, of course, a gag one referencing one of Lovecraft’s most famous stories, “The Call of Cthulhu,” and that title paired with artist Erin Humiston’s image of the lead character on the cover, with her green hair extending into long, tentacle-like strands, makes for an all-around solid joke. But while there is definitely a lot of humor here, the genre is more horror-inflected action than anything else.
Shortly after she was suddenly orphaned, teenager Calla Tafali learned that she is actually a descendant of Cthulhu, one of the major—and best known—of the monster gods in Lovecraft’s pantheon. As one might expect of a teenager, however, Calla rebels against the expectations of her family, and she wants no part of her destiny. That is, she doesn’t want to someday become the portal through which the slumbering Cthulhu will return to Earth, ushering in an apocalypse.
Dorkin and Dyer gradually unravel the character’s back story and conflict, beginning the book with a dynamite action scene in which she uses a magical weapon to rescue a little boy from a tentacled horror beneath the streets. For the remainder of the first volume, which climaxes with Calla siding against a member of her extended family with a pair of human assassins who have come to kill her, Calla is beset on all sides by various players who either want to control her power her or stop her from ever using it.
Some of these players will have the names, or at least the looks, of characters and creatures from Lovecraft and company’s oeuvre. Her uncle is Robert W. Chambers’ King in Yellow, for example, and based on her gills and henchmean, her aunt seems to hail from Innsmouth…or at least just off-shore of it.
Calla’s only companions are Glug, a tiny cycloptic, gelatinous, cephalopod that looks Pixar-cute in design, and the seemingly sentient house she’s inherited. The former is something between a pet and a best friend, while the latter is seemingly still trying decide if it’s going to play ball with her or not.
Humiston’s artwork pretty perfectly matches the writers’ carefully calibrated tone. There’s a highly animated look to the comic, both in the simplicity of the designs (which suggests the look and feel of old-school, 2D animation from the ’90s) and the dynamism of the implied action. As previously mentioned, the cute sidekick character is incredibly cute, and the more straightforward horror elements are rendered in such a way as to be appropriately scary without being gory or mind-blowingly bizarre. While Lovecraft always suggested his monsters and menaces rather than revealing them, Calla’s creators put everything on the panel for the reader to see, diminishing the existential horror but amping up the action. These monsters are meant not to inspire dread and psychological helplessness but to be battled and beaten.
The comic was originally created for digital platform Stela, a fact that should help explain some of the bugs apparent, as its transition into a printed, book format isn’t exactly flawless. Each page is perfectly, relentlessly rectangular—perfectly phone-screen or tablet shaped—and prone to a vertical orientation, moving the eyes from up to down and only very rarely to the right or left. There are a lot of splash pages, and while the relatively high panel-to-action ratio and the size of those panels gives the book an almost cinematic quality at times, the reading experience can be a little off-putting. The re-formatting is perhaps most noticeable in the lettering, which changes in size depending on the panel or the page. The lettering by Nate Piekos looks good, but the scale of it seems to jump around; perhaps some of the pages could have, or should have, been re-lettered when Dark Horse collected and published the hard copy version of Calla.
That feeling that something isn’t quite right about the comic—which, let’s be honest, is actually sort of appropriate given the subject matter—is maybe the only weakness in what is otherwise a pretty killer riff on Lovecraft’s labyrinthine mythology. Whether this is a young reader’s introduction to his weird tales or simply one more of the many comics doing their own thing with that material said reader has experienced, it’s a fun, action-packed comic commenting on popular but iffy source material where the action is generally only implied, and women are all but absent.
About J. Caleb Mozzocco
J. Caleb Mozzocco is a way-too-busy freelance writer who has written about comics for online and print venues for a rather long time now. He currently contributes to Comic Book Resources' Robot 6 blog and ComicsAlliance, and maintains his own daily-ish blog at EveryDayIsLikeWednesday.blogspot.com. He lives in northeast Ohio, where he works as a circulation clerk at a public library by day.
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