Revisiting Cradlegrave

Why you need to seek out possibly the most-overlooked horror story in the last decade of comics

First appearing in the UK weekly anthology comic 2000AD, Cradlegrave is one of the most criminally-overlooked stories published in comics anytime in the last decade — not just within 2000AD, not just in the field of horror, but in the entire oeuvre of comics. Over the course of just 12 six-page episodes published from 29 April 2009 to 15 July 2009, writer John Smith and artist Edmund Bagwell crafted a tale that — at first — looks to be mashup of disastrous constituents. Instead, Cradlegrave ends up becoming something so fabulously chilling that it should be on the essential reading list for anyone who is even slightly interested in what the medium of comics is capable of once you leave the convoluted world of superhero stories behind.

As mentioned earlier, sadly Edmund Bagwell died from pancreatic cancer on 14 May 2017, aged 50. I hope he knew just how much his work meant to so many readers out there.

Cradlegrave doesn’t stop to explain itself. It doesn’t have a clean little conclusion that ties up all its loose ends. There’s no government scientist getting neatly parachuted in at the start of Act Three to supply some expositionary context to the chaos that has and is unfolding during the climax. Cradlegrave’s writer, John Smith, often employs a blunt impenetrability to both the macro- and minutiae-elements of his stories’ mythology and with Cradlegrave it is no different.

Throughout the story, Smith leaves the doors to the mysteries open just wide enough for us to peek through at the worst possible answers to our unanswered questions. He invites us in by tripping our curiousity just enough so we end up being complicit in the grotesque reveal of Ravenglade’s darkest secret. His writing doesn’t just draw us in, but makes us an accomplice to it. He makes you feel guilty for having wanted to see it, and revolted that you have.

Smith’s entire 2000AD career has been one of non-traditional storytelling. The aforementioned Indigo Prime, Devlin Waugh (a Dredd-verse based gay vampire killer for the Vatican), Firekind (a hard sci-fi concept involving hallucinogens and dragons, and itself a prototype for the fan-lauded by mainstream-ignored storytelling that Smith seems to revel in) and Tyranny Rex (a sporadic yet bizarrely long-running series of stories centred around a humanoid lizardwoman, bouncing between genres and never quite finding its niche even by 2000AD’s flexible standards) — Smith’s stories sound like someone who has thrown every idea from a particular deranged brainstorming session at a particularly weird wall to see what sticks. What separates them from being nothing but ooh-so-ZANY romps is the thought, the composure, the intent that his scripts carry. His concepts may be strange, but they all carry with them tough truths, hard resolutions, and characters that we are not only sympathetic to but recognise; their traits and humanity born out in their stories being the same that we see in the eyes of our friends and families in the really-real world.

Smith’s strengths as a writer can also be seen in Blackspot, a one-off 5-page story that saw the Smith and Bagwell reunite for the final time. A small not-officially-a-follow-up coda to Cradlegrave, it was originally published under the storytelling umbrella that is Tharg’s Terror Tales!, which is one of several banners that 2000AD presents one-off short stories under (others being time-travel/alt-history speculations of Time Twisters, the more traditional sci-fi Future Shocks, and more recently three-week 15 page filler pieces running as Tharg’s 3hrillers). These typically operate as arenas for new writers and artists to prove their mettle, but sometimes — as with Blackspot — they provide useful playgrounds for existing talents to excise ideas that don’t necessarily fit into existing story arcs or story structures.

Tharg’s Terror Tales! ‘Black Spot’ — prog #1801, first published 19/09/12

Blackspot thrums with Lovecraftian overtones — there’s more than a whiff of The Dunwich Horror to it, with a formless beast tearing a swathe of destruction across the countryside — but delivers them via 5 pages of comic rather than 30-odd of prose. It provides a mischievous glance at the what-might-have-been future of the Cradlegrave universe. All story endings are merely the point we stop paying attention to a particular set of characters or situation — drama can continues to unfold for them regardless if an audience is watching. And it’s particularly neat how Smith shows he can take so many of the core elements of Cradlegrave, jumble them up with a few new ingredients, and throw out a cheeky new five-pager with them.

Cradlegrave’s purposeful brevity and self-contained nature has meant it hasn’t quite established as solid a reputation among the classics of 2000AD’s enormous catalogue as I think it deserves, but I hope that one day that will change. Perhaps its that stalwartly British-centric setting, with its gloomy timbre and despair-tinged tone that are what rules it out from becoming a breakout favourite among the ranks international tastemakers/indie-snobs. The lack of blockbuster name recognition — he may be able to out-weird Grant Morrison, out-gross Garth Ennis, and out-imagine Mark Millar, but the name “John Smith” will never give casual readers as much to cling on to as that trio offer — and more’s the pity.

It’s probably why (along with his goddamn near-unGoogle-able name) that Smith hasn’t made as significant a splash outside of the UK market as he deserves to, despite being able to out-write most of his transatlantically-tempted contemporaries who have been enthusiastically feeding the great beast of US comics since the UK comics brain-drain of the late 80s.

The climax of Cradlegrave is chaotic and violent, flipping between the micro and the macro, with things coming to a head both the ongoing confrontation with Skully, and the murky goings on surrounding Ted & Mary’s house. Cradlegrave has no happy ending, no conclusive resolution, and provides precious little hope for the future of most of it’s characters. Ravenglade ends against a backdrop of fire, urban dissent spilling over to violence and chaos; with the smoking remains of the Grenfell Tower disaster still looming across the London skyline, the tensions and inequality within the urban milieu of modern Britain feel as thick and present as ever. Like Cradlegrave, where the estate’s residents turned inward to tear at each other before stomping out the sources of their misery, contemporary Britain feels very much like it could storm in equal or opposite directions.

Outside of the medium of comics, Cradlegrave feels closest in tone to Ben Wheatley’s divisive 2011 movie Kill List, and not only because both have been largely (and unfairly) overlooked within their own medium and genre. Both feature protagonists struggling against forces they only partially comprehend (albeit the brooding hitmen protagonists swapped out for one centred around a Peugeot 306 full of ASBO-branded teenagers), and both feature a conclusion that leaves the audience feeling battered and unbalanced (the confusing cultist sabbat of Wheatley’s film is similarly replaced with the incubation of something more unnatural and unnerving in Cradlegrave). But perhaps most tellingly, both are examples of a fundamentally British expression of misery and violence.

Unlike the hopelessness that riddles so much sci-fi, horror, and occult storytelling, much of Cradlegrave’s hopelessness comes from the inevitability of modern society’s capacity of self-destruction. Shane may escape Ravenglade at the end of the story, but who and what does he leave behind? Throughout the story he struggles with the idea that he may never escape from who he is. The society he finds himself within hides its true nature under masks — be they Adidas hoodies of the youth, or the net curtains of a pensioners’ terraced house. At first they disguise their state of social decay, and latterly they contain their insane horror unleashed within the estate.

The bottled-up panic and reactive violence (reminiscent of both the aforementioned High Rise and Ballard’s oft-overlooked Millennium People) and the cold sober ending are a very British resolution to a horror story. The hinterland of America has never ceased to be a fertile ground for horror; the scale of the continent allows for many dark corners in which both human and inhuman menaces can flourish. The UK, on the other hand, is seen as too small a place physically, too known, too mapped, too connected to make the kind of stories that hinge on an aspect of the unknown to work. By pitching itself entirely within the confines of a single urban development, Cradlegrave side-steps this to walls itself within and without the wider nation it exists in.

It’s that setting that allows Cradlegrave to exist as it does — a glorious coming together of the horrors familiar, obscene, unknown, and unnatural. As a bastion of modern British horror, it is without peer, and is more than deserving of your utmost attention.

Cradlegrave is available to buy now as a complete trade paperback edition (UK) (US), or in digital formats direct from RebellionBlackspot is available by purchasing prog #1801 from Rebellion — it’s available in both pdf and cbz format, and it’s DRM-free.