Let me be straight: Billy Fog is a dark book for kids. Scant pages in, the title character, a boy no more than ten, writes in a letter to Santa:
Who is death? What is it? Where is it? Do we have to go there?
Sometimes in bed, before I go to sleep, I look into the darkness all around me and I think, so that’s death: darkness, shadows, emptiness, nothingness. Then I get all scared and yell to drive the bad thoughts away.
To make me feel better, my mom made up stories of light and heaven — that’s where you go when you die, and everything’s extra-great there.
I try to believe in it, but I can’t.
I know they’re just stories for making scaredy-cats feel better, and I’m not a scaredy-cat. But I’m scared.
How do I explain: I don’t know if I’m afraid of my death, or just afraid of not knowing.
Santa Claus, you know everything. I know you know the secret of death.
While translating this book last summer, I called it Edward Gorey meets Calvin and Hobbes—for its macabre, meticulous art; for its faithful exploration of childhood’s imaginarium — but like all taglines, this one could stand a little more complication, for the book’s plot is, roughly, this: what if Hobbes wasn’t stuffed, but flesh-and-blood, and died? What if a Calvin whose fantasies were of a particularly grisly bent, given to ghost hunting with an “anti-ectoplasmic net”, set out to find Hobbes’ soul and restore it to his decaying corpse?
What if, in doing so, he had to cross a dark wood at witching hour, dodging a selfless vampiress, a boogeyman who bites off hands and bags them up for later snacking, the helplessly murderous Little Knife Girl, and Nina, the seamstress with scissors in her eyes?
Welcome to the world of Guillaume Bianco’s Billy Fog and the Gift of Trouble Sight, the first of three Billy Fog titles from Archaia Entertainment.
Bianco’s book is no ordinary graphic novel, but rather a graphic compendium, comprising pages of traditional black and white comics (sequential narrative art), original if murderous nursery rhymes, and sepia-toned excerpts: from the Gazette of the Bizarre, a newspaper of the paranormal, and from Billy’s own bestiary of creatures imagined and exaggerated.
Where else are you going to learn the developmental stages of the puddle princess, mudling child of the marsh apple and sower of earthworms?
What other book will taxonomize coleopedes and mortifera, help you outwit the riddles of lady in the well, provide a coupon for cast-iron pigtail clippers for use on kid sisters, or tell you how to manifest and trap a tulpa (hint: with the power of your mind)?
From this sheaf of assembled documents arises the comprehensiveness of a private universe. More than story, more than atmosphere, they are world, and imply more world in the shadows beyond what we are shown.
No Spaceman Spiff or Tracer Bullet for Billy, no bold heroics. His fantasies are of an unrelieved anxiety: demons, enigmas, fleeting sightings, a proliferation of unconfirmed phenomena.
The best way to define Billy’s gift of “trouble sight” is that he sees disturbing things: monsters in merely suggestive shrubbery, gateways between this world and the next. Or so he claims. The book leaves his clairvoyance an open question: are the phantasmagoria Billy determinedly witnesses but figments of a febrile mind? Is he to be blamed for the occasional hallucination when daily life sneakily offers up ghastly faces from his fears? In one panel Billy’s parents, who dismiss his every vision, are seen reading the Gazette of the Bizarre. There is no resolution to the question of reality.
Bianco expertly captures two facets of lonely Billy, an embryonic Goth if ever there was one: the tyranny he exercises over his imagined domain, and the way that turns on him. Ann Beattie once wrote of a solitary child, “You can see the disappointment on his face that other people are in the world.” Billy systematically excludes his kid sister Jeannie from all activities (Bianco dedicates the book to his own younger sister). His imagination – transformative, all-encompassing – brooks no intrusion. And as in Roald Dahl’s “The Wish,” the very rules that make a world real stack the odds against their maker, making it impossible for him to succeed. In doing so, they reflect the very implacability of the world he sought to escape, where death is inevitable.
Billy is every bit a boy, made of frogs and snails and puppy dogs’ tails — rambunctious, heedlessly sadistic. But when mourns his cat Tarzan,
the punching bag and best bud to whom he was, quite frankly, a little shit, a very moving sense of bereavement pervades the book, as if the seriousness of the business death is cannot be dispelled. For all that Billy can be a coward, a liar, and a bully, his grief and growing terror are heartfelt, wrenching, and vividly conveyed.
You’d be pardoned at this point for believing the book a total downer were it not alleviated by ickiness — less gallows, say, than maggot humor, all things squirm and squickish.
Anatomical drawings not Haeckel but Jekyll in their icky exactitude, or in their cadaverous leer even Hyde. So winsomely depicted, so fetchingly repellent, the inventions charm with their whimsy and humor.