THIS REVIEW OF ‘SOME STRANGE DISTURBANCES’ CONTAINS SPOILERS.
by Kate Kowalski. It truly is no wonder as our world slips ever increasingly into turmoil (to put it very mildly), that the popularity of alternative spiritual and religious belief systems is surging on social media. Surely you’ve come across one of the seemingly infinite number of astrology meme accounts on Instagram or gotten sucked into the deluge of #witchtok videos on Tik Tok.
Occult-leaning belief systems have long been cultivated as spaces of power and safety for women, queer folks, and people of color as alternatives to more mainstream (and restrictive) religious practices. This isn’t a new trend—we see it happening throughout history: The “Satanic Panic” of the 80s and 90s, the rise of Wicca in the 60s and 70s, and even further back to the mass appeal of Spiritualism in the Victorian Era. Which brings us to Craig Hurd-McKenney, Gervasio, and Carlos Aón’s Some Strange Disturbances, a story steeped in the ghostly world of Victorian Spiritualism that sheds light on the more insidious and tangible threats of 19th century society that unfortunately continue to haunt many today.
The spiritual realm is an apt setting for a story with queer themes, especially one set in as restrictive a time and place as Victorian London. Anyone who didn’t fit in the tight definition of what was accepted as “normal” lived in the margins of society, a liminal space. The world of ghosts, spirits, and ghouls is itself a liminal space as well, existing alongside our waking reality. It’s a pairing of subject and metaphor that allows us to better understand the plight of one Prescott Mayfair, a Baltimore-born medium sponsored by London’s elite, serving as a contact to their dearly departed. Prescott is somebody who learned long ago to suppress himself to be more palatable to his uppercrust patrons, taking advantage of the Spiritualist fad to use his psychic abilities and gain access to a better life and more opportunities. His grasp on freedom and a decent life is tenuous, dependent on the favor of his sponsors and the opinion of society.
Through his patrons he meets another “sponsored” individual, Miss Delilah Quinton, a black vocal performer who senses right away that she and Prescott are more alike than what meets the eye. Soon after we learn Prescott is hiding the fact that he’s gay—meeting men in theatre boxes and alleyways, constantly looking to avoid suspicion and the threat of law. Miss Quinton and Prescott become fast friends and bond over their “otherness,” but when one of their clients calls upon our Spiritualist to cure his child of what he deems a spiritual malady they are made to reckon with the forces that have long pushed them both into the dark corners of society.
These characters are crafted with care. We are shown the struggles of Prescott Mayfair as a white gay man and Delilah Quinton as a black woman are not equal—each have their own unique obstacles. Hurd-McKenney doesn’t shy away from showing us the brutality of the time and the physical and emotional toll it takes on those who resisted it. Through their kinship however, Prescott and Delilah are able to support each other and lend aid to others facing similar struggles.
Miss Quinton and Mr. Mayfair’s fight against oppression is set alongside one of the major scandals of the times, the persecution and trial of Oscar Wilde. This event is used in Some Strange Disturbances as an era-specific backdrop, appearing in full-page recreations of newspaper spreads featuring political cartoons and newspaper illustrations true to the style of the time. Gervasio & Carlos Aón pay homage to this aesthetic with their light line work and hatch shading, immersing the reader more fully into the historical setting and wielding the style to make an earnest critique of Victorian English cultural norms.
Because the comic is in black and white, there’s naturally an emphasis on light and shadow. The artists take full advantage of this, using darkness to lend insight into a character’s headspace and deliberately-placed points of brightness to draw attention to threats lurking in the corners of certain panels. (This is, after all, a ghost story of sorts.) The frequent use of chiaroscuro throughout the book lends Some Strange Disturbances a heady sense of atmosphere, but it’s the small artistic touches that give it personality: Ghosts swoosh through the scene as fluid as motion lines; puffs of tobacco smoke convolute the space around a character’s head, creating a feeling of social claustrophobia; droplets of sweat express shock, distress, and in some instances, pleasure. It all feels so very lived-in—universal yet specific to the time. It’s obvious that the proper amount of diligence to the era was paid in full.
In Hurd-McKenney’s afterword, he cites the research he undertook to examine the lives of marginalized individuals in this particular era and how he went about relating their experiences through the story. Despite how it may seem from the predominant narrative coming out of that time (and the popular narratives being told about that time even today), queer people and people of color did exist in society and did try to lead the best lives they could given the circumstances. Hurd-McKenney reimagines history through a different lens, providing a worthwhile lesson in period representation and expanding our consideration of whose stories we tell.
Despite being set in the past, Some Strange Disturbances is a penny dreadful for our time. The malignant spirits our heroes set out against are terrifying. The root of the malignancy is even more frightening. The fact that we still find ourselves fighting against those very same forces of hatred and bigotry today, well over a hundred years later, is downright horrifying.
Alternative comics can prove to be just as powerful a balm to these horrors as alternative spiritual systems have been throughout history. Storytelling is a spiritual practice all on its own and a powerful tool to expand our narratives, to grow empathy towards others. Reading Some Strange Disturbances is an opportunity to see and celebrate heroes that have been oppressed and pushed to the margins. Inhabiting a more equitable fictional world is a (small, but important) step towards creating a more equitable reality for all.
Headless Shakespeare Press / $9.99
Written by Craig Hurd-McKenney.
Art by Gervasio and Carlos Aón.
Cover by Tyler Smith-Owings.
Layout and additional design by Keeli McCarthy.
8 out of 10
‘Some Strange Disturbances’ is available now.
Enjoy this 3-page preview of ‘Some Strange Disturbances’, courtesy of Headless Shakespeare Press!