Maniac Harry isn’t the scariest thing in NYC
It’s impossible to discuss Elliott Kalan & Andrea Mutti’s new Aftershock horror comic, Maniac of New York, without mentioning the film that inspired it. Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan begins with panning shots of New York City in decay. The goal of this putrid patina is to paint a picture of violence and danger in the largest US city. This exaggerated straw boogeyman of the Reagan era and the film’s title promise that the scum and villainy plaguing America’s urban centers in the 80s would finally get their comeuppance as Jason Voorhees leaves camp and is loosed upon the crumbling metropolis. Only, as the film continues, this doesn’t happen. Jason simply takes a very long and bloody boat trip spoiling a graduation celebration in the process. He only spends the final moments of the film in Manhattan, amassing very little in the way of body count. It’s undeniably one of the greatest disappointments of the entire Friday the 13th franchise. Maniac of New York hits issue #3 today and is making good on Jason Takes Manhattan‘s failed promises.
An unstoppable machete-wielding juggernaut finally tears through the Big Apple with all of the carnage horror fans ever hoped for, only this isn’t 1989 and the maniac in question isn’t Jason Voorhees. The comic sets the stage with a flashback. It’s NYE 2016 and ‘Maniac Harry’ has just made his first grizzly appearance slashing his way through Times Square in a now-historic massacre. Much like Jason, Harry is a large, slow-moving, and unstoppable brute who sports a familiar hockey mask. We get glimpses of politicians and their rhetoric echoing the post-9/11 ‘never again’ sentiments before jumping ahead to 2020. For four years, Harry keeps coming back, striking at random, leaving a trail of bodies wherever he goes. The morning subway report gives systematic updates and warnings based on Maniac Harry sightings, but as a whole life has settled into a state of complacency with this unstoppable masked killer. Even the budget for NYC’s “Maniac Task Force” is slashed dramatically, and the detectives working for them treat their job as nothing more than a perfunctory ritual of bureaucracy.
The first issue of Maniac of New York paints a picture of the city in 2020, the contrast between the New York of Part VIII, and Maniac couldn’t be starker. Gone is the violence and decay of 1989; in its place, we have a sterile cultivated metropolis owned by Wall Street suits and gentrifying developers. Property values are God here. The issue builds to a cliffhanger just before Maniac Harry begins a subway train massacre. Moments before the killer arrives on New York’s first automated train, the comic’s narrator provides some observations from the only person who might survive this disaster. Gabriella is a single mother, struggling to get by, even in the midst of the ongoing Maniac crisis, her landlord is raising the rent again and she just can’t keep up. We get snippets of her thoughts as she surveys the subway car. She thinks the Maniac isn’t doing his job and wonders,
“Where is he when the German tourists in their AirBnB’s drive up the cost of everything? Where is he when the Wall Street frat bros knock down family walk-ups to build luxury towers? Where was he when the college kids used their apps to run her father’s cab out of business?”
Unaware of what’s about to transpire, she wishes they could be erased. Like Jason, Maniac Harry is here to punish the wicked, only in 2021 that looks a bit more like you and me. We haven’t eliminated the urban violence of the 1980s but traded it for a more palatable less open form of brutality. We live in a culture that preys upon the underprivileged. So many of us have grown complicit with societal evils. Even as crises approach our front door, it seems so long as someone else is suffering, we live in a delusion of security. Kalan & Mutti allow us this bit of dark wish-fulfillment. Closing the issue, the reader is excited for Harry’s carnage, like Gabriella, we’ve seen some of the harms first hand and wouldn’t mind Harry doing a bit of cleanup. It doesn’t last, as we open the following issue with complete dread when the reader is forced into the shoes of Harry’s victims.
There’s a bit of black comedy in the Friday the 13th franchise. Jason’s victims are frequently loud, larger than life characters. Moments before their deaths they’re often portrayed in emotional outbursts over the mundane inconveniences of their day-to-day before Jason abruptly cuts their lives short. There is a detestable relatability to these characters, and that makes these films cathartic. Jason is the living embodiment of death, he is unstoppable, and could strike at any time. Even the most pressing of mortal concerns lose their gravitas as Jason steps into frame. These simulated moments of carnage reveal something to us about existence that is otherwise uncomfortable to wrestle with. From a certain perspective, life is kind of silly and pointless. This is perhaps where Harry differs most from the slasher that inspired him most.
As a brilliant comedic writer, one might expect Kalan, who admits he was inspired by the films, to play up this angle, but he’s not out to make you laugh. Maniac of New York subverts this idea with a heaping scoop of pathos, making #2 one of the most memorable and disturbing single comic issues in recent memory. When Harry appears on New York’s new self-driving train, the omniscient narrator gives fleeting glimpses of each victim’s hopes and dreams, instead of the mundane annoyances we see in Friday the 13th. They aren’t frustrated by minor inconveniences but looking forward to an approaching moment of self-actualization. They’re on their way to profess their love, pay their last mortgage payment, or they just learned they were accepted into college. Their humanity is juxtaposed with their final moment of terror through the cold muted colors of Andrea Mutti’s art. Each face takes on harsh overhead lighting, almost giving the effect of color draining from their panicked screams. It is far more contextualized than any moment in a Friday the 13th movie in a way that only a comic could be.
What feels truly fresh about Maniac is the way it creates a believable world around an absurd disaster. Harry is impossible, unbelievable, and if you think about him too much, he’s kind of ridiculous, especially considering the surveillance state we live in; but the government response to Harry’s attacks feels almost like a documentary. With the majority of readers having lived through the 9/11 attacks, the 2008 financial crisis, a multitude of climate disasters, endless wars, a housing crisis, the student loan debt crisis, and Covid-19, we’ve grown very accustomed to looking the other way to the brutality of our world while our leaders offer nothing more than rhetoric and publicity stunts. The horror in Maniac of New York isn’t Harry at all, but the sinking ever-growing realization that despite our best efforts, when things get truly dire, we’re on our own.
Maniac of New York is shaping up to be a masterpiece of a horror comic about a society that has given up on its crisis. The comic stays firmly rooted in escapism but also feels like the product of survived trauma. Coming out of yet another unprecedented crisis, horror media is undoubtedly going to take influence from our collective anxieties. I expect more stories where the evil is ever-present but simply too inconvenient to deal with; stories where governments aren’t out to get us and they certainly won’t rescue us, they simply don’t care. After the last year, Maniac Harry doesn’t seem ridiculous at all.