A collection of beautiful, dark, strange, and hilarious moments, the sparse narrative of Noel Freibert’s graphic novel Old Ground occurs entirely within the withered Old Maple Grove cemetery. Composed in dripping black splotches and lines so fine they might better be called incisions, Freibert finds horror in the desecration of tradition and humor in the face of death’s uncertainty. The full action of this novel could take place in a matter of hours. In fact, it may be happening in real time as you read it: a frog and a dog navigate a graveyard landscape, the corpses of two children have a discussion, a pair of demolition workers begin to destroy the grounds, and then an ending that is both enigmatic and deeply satisfying.
The protagonists are the two dead children who have been dead for so long that the names on their tombstones have worn with age and they can’t even remember them. Word bubbles filled with Waiting for Godot inspired dialogue hover above two stone burial slabs as the two explore the concept of what it means to be dead. The kids give themselves the nicknames “Cliffie” (age 5) and “Silver Spoon” (age 8), and befriend an animal duo of a frog and a dog that they name Otto and Whitefoot respectively. Silver Spoon attempts to frighten and intimidate little Cliffie who only hopes that his Poppy will come to rescue him from death. A sample of the back and forth:
Silver Spoon: “Imagine that your mouth is full of nails. Now bite down on them. You’re so hungry that you enjoy the feeling. Feel it poke through your lips, penetrating your cheeks…like a fish with a feast of hooks.”
Cliffie: “Stop! I don’t want to eat nails!”
Soon, a pair of demolition workers appear to carry out the job of destroying the cemetery to make way for a community retirement home. The brutish Renaldo and his diminutive boss (who is just called Boss) are both silly and terrifying, a hilarious comedy duo driven by greed and a lust for destruction. As the story’s villains, they are the focus of segments of incredible tension such as the moment when Renaldo is faced with a spiritual decision over whether or not to destroy a large, decapitated crucifix headstone. As a representative of the modern world outside the Old Maple Grove cemetery walls, Boss explains away the moral quandary of desecrating the grounds, “No living soul remembers a name who was buried here. It’s been abandoned for that long…These days everyone is so occupied by their glowing screens…They forget that their great, great, great ancestors are rotting in this place.” The tension of the novel circulates over Renaldo and the Boss’ assigned task, however, the narrative works hand in hand with Freibert’s disorienting art and playful dialogue to give the story emotional weight. While many works of free-flowing psychedelia rely solely on bizarre imagery or tone, when the two workers are preparing to demolish the resting places of Cliffie and Silver Spoon, you’ll feel truly concerned.
And is it any coincidence that he lives so close to the grave of Edgar Allan Poe in Baltimore? Unafraid to shock readers in previous works, author Noel Freibert has been writing and illustrating horror comics for many years, editing Weird Magazine and participating with the Closed Caption Comics group. While CCC isn’t specifically tied to horror it seems to be the genre Freibert comes back to most frequently, using bits from EC Comics, weird manga, and underground art comics while creating something wholly unique in any medium. Published by Koyama Press in 2017, Old Ground is his first novel after years of anthologized shorter pieces and collections.
Freibert draws in a style of high contrast — large fields of white marked by dark black patches that create texture and imply shadows. There are no grey tones in Old Ground and figures frequently transform and abstract, eventually melting into a psychedelic jelly. The grid panels that contain the action are the place of repetitions, sometimes lasting for pages at a time — the Boss demolishing graves with a hammer over and over again, a frog and dog staring at one another – but the images aren’t duplicated, they change from panel to panel. The effect of the repetitions is not only to disorient, but to create a building tension. The panels indicate a change in time, but the pace on one page may not be the pace of the next. Time in Old Ground is suspect; this is a work that deals with the dead and the dead have a different pace.
If you dig past the fishhook horrors and crumbling tombs, the story is a kids vs developers tale like The Goonies (1985) or Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo (1984). There’s a collectivism amongst the inhabitants of the Old Maple Grove Cemetery, even when they don’t all get along, they work together against the common threat of the outside world. Even the roses have a role, and what’s a cemetery without roses? Disorienting and dark, yet playful and humorous, Old Ground battles against its own cynicism, finding innocence still alive, even if it’s a bit worm-eaten.