Blood of the Virgin. Sammy Harkham. Pantheon, Penguin Random House. New York. 2023. 296 pp. $30.
A quick and apt description of the comics created by Sammy Harkham would be “painfully honest.” While this sentence alone may not mean very much to the vast sea of potential readers, it will resonate with many, not only the comics aficionado but the general reader. This particular work is at the masterpiece level when it comes to full-length graphic novels. Fans and critics alike have been patiently waiting for the various parts they’ve read published elsewhere to all come together and so here we go: a story about Hollywood, its underbelly; in fact, the exploitation scene of the 1970s. Our anti-hero, Seymour, working at one of these cheap movie studios and patiently waiting his turn, has been promoted leaving him in charge of his own movie. This level of responsibility, and relative notoriety, easily consumes him threatening an already shaky relationship with his wife, Ida.
Like any worthwhile graphic novel project, this book has been many years in the making. The bulk of the book was created in installments and appeared in the author’s own self-published comic book, Crickets, as well as his legendary ongoing comics anthology, Kramers Ergot. Anyone who seriously follows the indie comics scene will at least be aware of Sammy Harkham. Diehards will closely follow his every turn. And, for the vast majority of readers, this will be the first time they are exposed to this work.
Harkham’s cartooning style is a classic approach in the great tradition of working from reality and paring away to the essentials. This style fits in with great comics from the last century like MAD Magazine. It’s a very readable style that embraces personal moments between characters. We see Seymour and Ida, over and over again, at their best and worst. We certainly see plenty of Seymour at his worst. The stage is set early on with the big hint that Seymour doesn’t appreciate his wife and maybe the same goes for Ida. We proceed waiting for the other shoe to drop. The whole business with exploitation movies may as well be one big MacGuffin compared to what happens to these two. Harkham makes us care over and over again.
Hollywood looms large over everything. That can’t be denied. Seymour is in the storytelling business, even if it’s a very small and cheesy slice of it. Maybe he just needs to be a part of it, a way to live forever. It’s more than half way into the book before there’s any mention of why Seymour does what he does. He claims to love horror movies. Even the cast he’s directing admit they love rock bands more than movies. Maybe Seymour loves the movie-making process more than just movies. That remains a question. Seymour himself remains a question.
Seymour’s story is about a young man who must do something. If it isn’t making movies, then maybe it would be making comics. Throughout the book, we see him following his passion of making something of himself. He doesn’t really know all that much about movies, about women, about the world around him. All he really knows is that he must do something. One epiphany may lead to another but, while you’re busy living your life, it can look like one big mess. And it is a mess. As Ida puts it, “Even at its best, life is just really annoying.” In the end, Ida and Seymour are an immature young married couple who can’t afford yet to fully appreciate each other, themselves, or even their child. Such is life and Sammy Harkham manages to strike the right chord with each and every painfully honest key.
It’s funny how a story that spans a few weeks can take fourteen years to complete. Such is the nature of bringing to life a fully-formed comics masterwork. If you are among the select number of comics aficionados who have diligently followed this story as it came out in issues of Crickets, and think you’re done with it, I encourage you to read the whole thing through now in its collected form. It may not be as you remembered it. Maybe it’s not, at its core, a story about storytelling. Well, that’s only part of it. After giving this a read from beginning to end, I stand by my interpretation that it’s a steady and deliberate look at callow youth trying to make sense of it all. It’s certainly not only about Hollywood ambition. If it was, Harkham wouldn’t have devoted an entire issue of Crickets to Ida’s sudden detour, her visit to see her parents in Auckland.
This story is exploring the existential crisis we all must confront. Is Seymour going to find salvation in the movie business? Unless he’s really serious about seeking out what is most artful in the horror movie genre, then maybe he’s just as likely to move on to other pursuits. But, at this particular point in time, movie-making is his thing. What is it that matters most to Seymour? Even with his movie passion supposedly locked in, he would be hard pressed to articulate what his priorities are. Other readers will have their own opinions. This is one of those special graphic novels that genuinely invites its own book club! Who knows, maybe Blood of the Virgin will ascend to that most coveted of heights: spoken in the same breathe with Maus and Persepolis. It’s that good!
Blood of the Virgin is now available for pre-order. The Pantheon collected edition comes out May 2, 2023.