Wednesday, June 24, 2015


I'm not wrong; this looks terrifying, right?

None of the Spire Christian Comics – all but entirely the handiwork of the almost-universally underrated Al Hartley – are particularly aimed at adults, not Archie or The Brothers or any of the line’s adaptations of inspirational books and films, for that matter. With all of that said, the content of the line’s specifically-for-the-kiddie-winks title Barney Bear simplifies its message to such a degree that it’s practically intended only for the well-read zygote, AND YET as the message gets simpler, it somehow gets … slightly more menacing. There’s apparently a genuinely narrow boundary dividing evangelical faith from predatory faith, and Barney Bear and the rest of his ursine Manson Family sit firmly on the slightly alarming side of that division.

Take for example Barney Bear: Sunday School Picnic (The colon is my insertion, and it makes it seem much more like a Law&Order spinoff) originally published in 1981, which features the seemingly innocent tale of Barney and the rest of the bear clan (his father Ripperclaw and his mother ThunderSlayer) packing up a picnic lunch so as to join the rest of their congregation for a day of haranguing agnostics.

Along the way, the Bears happen across the battered and broken-down car containing another animal family whose species is never mentioned, but from their appearance I can only guess are bucktoothed socks with whiskers. Papa Bear (known as “Skullsplitter” among his former prison pals) manages to fix the car all right, and even extends an invitation to their picnic, which all sounds well and fun until this exchange of dialogue occurs: “I knew their car would start” suggests Pop, his hands still wet from engine grease and stinking of copper, “I prayed about it!” Mother replies, as all three stare forward blank-faced, “I knew they’d come to the picnic – I prayed for them!!”

You've signed your family's death warrant, kid.
This does not sound good. When she says she prayed FOR them, does she mean “on their behalf” or “That God would send us someone to murder on a country road far away from prying eyes”? From this page alone, it’s hard to judge, but it’s clearly the latter.

From there, the book breaks down into some of the usual patter of the evangelical comics. It turns out, for instance, than no agnostic has ever heard anyone describe to them even the general themes of the Bible, and so all you have to say is something like “But Jesus says love is good” and they respond like “ARE YOU FUCKING SHITTING ME? I HAVE GOT TO GET IN ON THIS!! HOLY CRAP! BOB! COME HERE! DID YOU HEAR ABOUT THIS OUTLANDISH NEW IDEA? WHERE DO I SIGN??” Somehow this world is populated entirely either by the leering, relentlessly cheered faithful and people who’d never even heard of … Grod, was it? Glod? Something like that.

There’s also the explanatory segments appended with an asterisk which direct you to specific passages from the Bible, one of which cites Isaiah 55:10 to explain evaporation and how to make bread. Technically speaking, you can find that information on Wikipedia. I learned the first part from a bubblegum wrapper, it’s not really exclusive to the Bible.

Good lord.
Anyway, amidst all of this, the last thing you want to have happen happens, as Papa Bear (served a nickel for aggravated assault, has a tattoo of a dagger inside his right eyelid so he can “observe the sacred knife” while he sleeps) grabs the young sock-creature-thing (“Charlie,” we’re informed) and takes off with him in a conveniently-prepared hot air balloon hidden behind a ring of trees and shrubs. You can’t drive a balloon, folks, so that kid is not coming back to his parents any time soon. He does learn a lot about evaporation while he’s up there, though.

By the end of the book, Charlie’s family is so jumpy that they’re leaping in the air, shocked at a mass of people “Having FUN!” (“And it’s NICE fun,” adds Charlie, implying a terrible subtext). I’d be on edge too, folks, you’ve been invited to the murderbear church, and it’s time to give up something for the Blood Lent. A recently-converted “Swamp Gang” descends on the party, and the next time we hear about Charlie’s family, it’s because their broken-down car is discovered empty and unattended in a field, which is how a lot of news reports start.

Anyway, it’s one of those comics with the best intentions, but even Hartley’s typically gorgeous linework starts to vibrate with the relentless, gaping mouth smiles and dinner-plate eyes of the faithful, staring with Stepford delight at every misstep of the uninitiated. Next time you need a genuinely disturbing horror comic to send a shiver down your spine, may I suggest reaching for a Barney Bear title …

The expression on the faces of Mom and Dad Whisker Sock seem to indicate that they now know fear. 

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