Hell Phone Book One
Written and drawn by Benji Nate
Publisher: Silver Sprocket
Fun outfits. Bad behavior. Real feelings. es, it’s a murder mystery paranormal detective story, but the sleuths this time are juvenile delinquents. Not the kind that hot rod or carry switchblades. They’re the fucked up friends of today! Racing stripe joggers and ripped jeans in the cemetery, shovels at the diner, Sissy and Lola are what they call a hot mess. It might be a young investigators paperback, but the only thing that’s retro is the flip phone that kicks off Benji Nate’s Hell Phone Book One. The phone drops out of time and into the bushes outside of Sissy’s apartment, sending two best friends into a weird world of ghosts, slit throats, burning VHS tapes, sleeping on a friend’s couch and sharing their wardrobe.
The friendship runs all over the detective work. Kind of cool to know that stuff like bad parties and work can even get in the way of supernatural justice. Life slows down how many questions get answered, but the personal relationship wading into the horror movie tension, that’s cool, too. Getting the feeling that you’re better friends than roommates when, for safety’s sake, it’s best for everyone to just stick together? Not ideal. Imperfect friendship with low key horror consequences- if that is what is even happening and it isn’t the book’s general vibe stressing me out and looking for clues- like what’s developed by the end of the first Hell Phone book reminds me of my favorite Cathy G Johnson stuff, like rural horror Jeremiah and punk car crash Gorgeous. It starts out looking one way and turns swampy.
The caller on the other side on the flip phone won’t leave them alone, and things progress fairly quickly from a decidedly not normal morning to a paranormal weekend. There’s murder, and cultists, and even moments of throwback video quality to really scratch the Unsolved Mysteries itch. And then, beyond. Ghosts, disappearing women, municipal and familiar secrets intertwined. Hell Phone again is a detective story, the pleasure of putting a (admittedly grisly and strange) puzzle together. One take on Nate’s slacker sleuth pulp is its dropping obscured clues at a measured rate stokes the fire of the reader’s anticipation. Another reaction is the palms-to-the-sky familiar frustration from also typically being the motivated member in the group project.
And though the bad kids junior detective deconstruction rules, Hell Phone taking time out of crime solving to deal with life being messy really puts it closer to the chaotic vision Robert Altman had for The Long Goodbye. Taking Humphrey Bogart’s hardboiled icon and letting Elliot Gould turn him into a loser. How have you got it figured out and still don’t know what the hell is going on, a problem Gould’s Philip Marlowe shares with Lola and Sissy. Wherever Benji Nate is drawing influence and inspiration from, her book is establishing new territory in comics and crime pulp fiction I can feel. A mystery coming from the zine world. Where no genre is bound (or safe!) and the first word is earnest.
Benji Nate’s art is basic, bubble beings with black button eyes have jumped from the pages of a Sunday paper comic section printed in some alternate reality where FRUiTS is a newspaper right into Nate’s book. Chunky bodies, bust-up conversations, solid color backgrounds, Hell Phone is like a modern horror video game played out in an PS1 booklet or Nintendo Power magazine aesthetic. The style is defiance to the genre. Snuff films don’t look like that, do they? Nate’s art stands outside expectation, something like when Kerascoët’s princesses have a breakdown and feed their foes to the frogs. Macabre but silly, unbothered by traditional ideas of dos and don’ts, comics as art. Not lofty gallery art (a pity for the gallery) to be held above the rest of comics, but art like pure comics. The minicomics scene is sequential art from the heart. This is the first of Nate’s comics I’ve read, but her bold, powerful, confident artwork has always spoken to me, and is what drew me to Silver Sprocket in the first place years ago. The style is rebellion cartoons.
But also as a book nerd, Hell Phone‘s art to the bleed, absolute edge of page leaf, satisfies. A doodle book your friend made, not a thing sold in stores. In a horror story centered on lost objects coming back from the past, the print version feels that way. Graf notebook. Smaller paper size than a long box graphic novel, “as a mystery novel should be,” according to my muscle memory. Pulpy pages. Comforting sense of object. Nate’s style is so blocked out and cartoonist that the gutters that do occur become their own amplified space. The colors in Hell Phone are textured (or my book is) but flat, and with the edges of the page being the edge of the art, the white becomes a bit more to the comic’s key than just negative space, or the sole province of the dialogue. And the lettering! Big gutter bubble drift! Those sound effects! Hell Phone just hits different.
Hell Phone Book One is available from Silver Sprocket or wherever fine comics and books are sold. I got mine at Hub Comics in Somerville!