For as long as I can remember, I've been obsessed with monsters.
Horror comics are a big deal right now. Some of that can probably be attributed to the runaway success of Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard’s The Walking Dead – which was huge even before the television adaptation – and the fact that zombies in general are more popular than bacon. There are also recent Stephen King adaptations like The Stand and N., the ongoing Buffy the Vampire Slayer continuation of the TV show, Joe Hill’s Locke & Key, Brubaker & Phillips’ Lovecraftian noir Fatale, and “mainstream” horror comics like DC’s Swamp Thing and Animal Man. Heck, even Archie Comics has successfully launched its campy/scary Afterlife With Archie series in time for Halloween this year.
Indie comics aren’t exactly slouches in the horror arena. From early work like J.N. Williamson’s Masques to more recent homages like Bloodworth & Reed’s Midnight Mortuary to this year’s aptly titled Indie Horror Comics, independent horror comics have always had a bastion for more offbeat and personal work. Just finishing its first story arc, Tim Vargulish’s Goatman is no exception.
“The Goatman of Maryland wasn't as popular as other [American] monsters but it always stuck out to me as being particularly bizarre,” Vargulish says. “Other creatures seemed to have roots in reality. Bigfoot could be a missing link between man and ape, most lake monsters could be attributed to ancient fish that somehow survived since the dinosaur age, but a humanoid goat creature... that carried an axe?! There's no basis in reality of that, it's pure fiction, but fucking awesome fiction at that!”
Springing from the myth-pool of American legend, Vargulish’s take on the Goatman is at once dynamic and exciting. At once, battles with other legendary creatures take the fore, lending a classic “creature feature” vibe to the earlier stories. In the first issue, Goatman battles El Chupucabra, at once clearing up any misconceptions about goatmen versus goat vampires. Because epic battles between cryptozoological marvels are endlessly fascinating, Vargulish provides them in spades: Goatman versus werewolves, Goatman versus swamp monsters, Goatman versus … a shape-changing dolphin woman? Yes. All this, plus an homage to Van Helsing – only insane – named William Van Hunter, and you have a comic steeped in creature lore and horror tradition.
Of course, constant battles would grow tiring without an emotional drive to the story. Vargulish explains, “Here's a man who looks like a monster and is traveling the world to try to find a way to become normal again so he can return to his wife.” It’s a familiar enough conceit, recalling Alec Holland’s tragic tale in Swamp Thing or even Seth Brundle’s transformation horror in The Fly. Vargulish wisely allows the emotional arc to build slowly over his first seven issues, lulling readers with the bright and shiny fight and fright sequences while laying groundwork for his gut-punch seventh issue. The payoff is similar to that of Judd Winick’s Barry Ween, Boy Genius, in which a snarky, funny (yet engaging) story grows emotionally wrenching by the final pages. The last issue of the current arc declares the mission statement for the future of Goatman, underlined by three words. They’re not “I love you”; they resonate more deeply than that.
While Vargulish’s art lacks the polish of some of his more seasoned contemporaries, the simplicity of the black-and-white illustrations lend a sense of almost naïve wonder to the stories. Somewhere between Alexa Kitchen and R. Crumb, it’s the type of art that one typically finds in newspaper comic strips rather than comic books. However, as Vargulish’s story grows more involved and serialized, his art – and even approach to layout – has stepped up. There’s a splash page in issue seven that touches on the cosmic; it’s ambitious in a way that Goatman #1 barely hinted at.
“No one just starts off as a professional comic book writer,” Vargulish says. “You have to just start, even if you have no idea how.” This is a little modest. Though Vargulish didn’t intend to be a comic-book writer and artist – he makes at least part of his living as a stand-up comedian in Los Angeles – he’s read and studied comics as intensely as any aficionado can. With Rick Remender (Sea of Red, Strange Girl, Man With the Screaming Brain) and Mike Mignola (Hellboy, B.P.R.D.) as major influences, Vargulish is already carving his own niche in the world of indie/underground comics. Though the first strange and scary arc has finished, Vargulish promises, “Goatman will be returning next year. I still got a lot of big things planned for him.” It can only get weirder from here.
Readers can order copies of Goatman by writing to TVargulish@gmail.com with the title “Goatmail.” Issues 1-7 are now available.
Kevin Quigley is an author whose website, CharnelHouseSK.com, is one of the leading online sources for Stephen King news, reviews, and information. He has written several books on Stephen King for Cemetery Dance Publications, including a book on comics and Stephen King, Drawn Into Darkness, as well as Chart of Darkness, Stephen King Limited, 13, and co-wrote the recently released Stephen King Illustrated Movie Trivia Book. His first novel, I’m On Fire, is forthcoming. Find his books at cemeterydance.com.