Why you need to seek out possibly the most-overlooked horror story in the last decade of comics
First appearing in the UK weekly anthology comic 2000AD, Cradlegrave is one of the most criminally-overlooked stories published in comics anytime in the last decade — not just within 2000AD, not just in the field of horror, but in the entire oeuvre of comics. Over the course of just 12 six-page episodes published from 29 April 2009 to 15 July 2009, writer John Smith and artist Edmund Bagwell crafted a tale that — at first — looks to be mashup of disasterous constituents. Instead, Cradlegrave ends up becoming something so fabulously chilling that it should be on the essential reading list for anyone who is even slightly interested in what the medium of comics is capable of once you leave the convoluted world of superhero stories behind.
Blending Shane Meadows-esque sink-estate drama with extreme Cronenburg-ian body-horror, you’d be forgiven for thinking the conflict at the core of Cradlegrave’s narrative DNA would be one that would prevent either element from truly thriving. Each part seems so conceptually overwhelming that they should smother the impact of the other. It is a combination that on (figurative) paper should be an discordant and unworkable collision. But by gosh, if we’re talking about how it works on the very literal paper of comic books then this story suceeds beyond any expectation for both elements. Cradlegrave delivers an iron spike of urban menace and an disturbing and difficult-to-comprehend undercurrent of grotesquery, with the two taking turns to overtake each other before coming together in an anarchistic climax.
[A NOTE ON SPOILERS: I’ll try to avoid going in to the plot of Cradlegrave in too much detail in this article. It is the kind of story that benefits from its readers going into it blind, so they can stumble upon its secrets and sickness in as unexpected a state of mind as possible. However, if you read beyond this point I can’t guarantee you won’t gleam some facets of information about the story that will scuff some small piece of its mystique for you — so consider this your first and last warning].
Cradlegrave begins with the release of our protagonist, Shane Holt, from the fictional Thorn Hill young offenders institute. Incarcerated for a juvenile spate of arsons, a slightly older and wiser Shane is looking to keep his nose clean now he’s been granted freedom. Unfortunately, for Shane, the residents of Ravenglade estate (from which the story’s title derives — throughout the story any reference to the estate on road signs and the like is defaced with graffiti to become simply Cradlegrave) looks set to drag him back into the cycle of petty criminality that saw him locked up to begin with. It’s a plotline familiar to anyone who’s ever even seen the cover of an Elmore Leonard novel, transposed into the shabby world of a failing British housing initiative.
Shane’s story initially looks to be a fairly typical angel-on-one-shoulder-devil-on-the-other. Shane’s younger brother, Craig, looks set to follow the same path his elder brother is trying to escape from. Thanks to their carelessness irresponsibility, Shane and his pre-incarceration best mate, Callum, find themselves on a slippery-slope return to a life of dead-end thuggery under the blackmailed employ of Skully, the estate’s principal drug dealer. It is only friendly local pensioners Ted & Mary offering an alternative, with good ol’ salt-of-the-Earth hard-work being dangled as an outlet for Shane’s energies.
John Smith, however, loves to spike his work with a bit of trope-inversion, and the consequences of the drug-taking, petty vandalism, and accidental hit’n’run activities of the aimless youth of Ravenglade pale in comparison to the real evil growing at the heart of the estate. Dodging the same-old same-old story beats you might expect, Cradlegrave’s drama instead pivots around violent and visceral body-horror. For reasons unknown even to them at first, Shane’s brother and the other hoodie-clad gang members of the estate start visiting the bed-ridden Mary more and more. Even the most optimistic observer know that the home care conditions of the elderly aren’t something the feral youth of Great Britain typically take a spontaneous interest in. Something else — something of a darker purpose — is at work in Ravenglade. Something is very, very wrong within the home of Ted & Mary, and for nearly half the story only teases us wth glimpses inside the pensioners’ terraced home.
The reasons for re-evaluating one of 2000AD’s most overlooked horror series right now are twofold. Initially, it was due the death of series artist Edmund Bagwell on 16 May 2017. His tragic passing due to pancreatic cancer was impetus enough to make me want to pay tribute to one of the career highlights of a great comic book artist.
But since starting work on this article, the UK has gone through a whole series of events that echo the ideas and motifs that permeate Cradlegrave. A pointless general election called to satisfy a moronic Tory government’s appetite for Brexit. The tragedy of the Grenfell Tower inferno, with it’s corresponding spectre of corporate corruption, apologism, and corner-cutting that ultimately led to it. Against this backdrop of political unrest — Brexit-borne growing societal divisions, and very real urban-death and preventable-horror on our literal doorsteps — all against one of the hottest summers the UK has seen since records began, Cradlegrave feels increasingly thematically relevant on a national scale.
Ravenglade may be a fictional place somewhere in the north of England, but it is familiar to anyone growing up in an urban or sub-urban environment over the last 30 years anywhere in the UK. It is a bare-bones council estate, with only an occasional delapidated cul-de-sac of rented garages to break up but street after street of stucco-clad council houses. As anyone who grew up in one can testify, at the height of the British summer, such places sweat and swelt like a rotten wound left to fester. Maybe if you grew up in a larger city you’ll be more familiar with sets of stunted concrete box high rises as society’s default residential dustbin for the dispossessed underclass, but the atmosphere of the dense streetscape of Ravenglade will be familiar to you all the same. It is the kind of place that non-residents choose to skirt the edges of rather than go through when navigating to the other side. It is the kind of labyrinth that has no direct thoroughfares through and instead offers a series of interlocking spirals of dead-end streets leading nowhere. Ravenglade is the quintissential postwar housing solution: pack ’em in then forget about ‘em.
Ravenglade gives Smith’s story a physical boundary; it bestows Cradlegrave with an insular mania that being part of a wider, more open urban development could never allow to develop. It takes the frothing frenzy of JG Ballard’s High Rise and flattens it both geographically and across class lines. While Ballard’s novel paired degeneration with the insular and decadent excess of a middle-class isolated from society by the (then-revolutionary) concept of vertical living, Smith transposes the threat of a similar collapse of order to the desperation and squalor of a class left-behind at ground level.
The effect location has on the boundaries of the storytelling are hammered home even further by the literal framing of the story — both the opening and closing panels of Cradlegrave depict Shane standing next to the estate’s perma-vandalised border sign. This artistic mirroring also carries with it a thematic inversion of meaning. At the story’s start, Shane is returning to Ravenglade from a young offenders’ institute, strolling unbeknownst into chaos, instead thinking the familiar place of his unbringing will be where he can find stability for a fresh start. At the tale’s end, Shane is willingly walking out of the estate into the uncertainty of life beyond the borders of Ravenglade, leaving behind the remnants of a violent and diseased summer behind him.
Outside of Ravenglade are lands unknown, but the familiarly of life inside has been reduced to turmoil and violence by people it increasingly feels have been sealed off from the relative normality of the world outside the estate’s edges. Indeed, part of the horror at the end of the series is just how something that would appear gross and dripping with insanity to an outside viewer can be quickly rationalised as a new normal by those inocuated against its strangeness merely by continued proximity to it. When we stop to ask why Shane and co. don’t simply run away from their problems, we have to confront the truth that to them, there simply is nowhere to run away to. The estate is their entire world.
Shane’s departure from Ravenglade is no longer a tepid resolution to his story, but the conclusion to a journey to better himself and escape the literal dark fate that could’ve consumed him had he stayed. The story of drug dealer Skully, already a portentous example of a what-might’ve-been future for Shane, instead holes up within what he thinks is a fortified sanctuary within Ravenglade. Suffice to say, his potential future (and that of the estate in general) are ultimately far grimmer than Shane’s as an escapee.
Like the graffiti on the Ravenglade estate signs imply, these estates are the kind of place that if you’re born into there’s a damn good chance you’ll also grow old and die there. The endemic poverty, the blood ties and blood fueds, the social strata and pull of Ravenglade’s unspoken rules — these factors bleed in and out of not just Shane’s story, but of Ted’s, Callum’s, Craig’s and even Skully’s. These estates will be your home from Cradle[to the]grave. They are the kind of place the upper/middle classes of Britain hoped (and indeed, still hope) the underclass will eat each other. It just so happens that Ravenglade is the first where that might just happen literally.
Throughout Cradlegrave, Ravenglade is striken by both a heatwave and a month-long binman strike. The smell of the place starts creeping off the page long before we’re introduced to the biological horror lurking in the hot darkness of Ted & Mary’s bedroom. Garbage lurks in the corners of almost every streetside panel, flies buzz around everywhere, and the stubborn grime that seems to cling to evey building, person, and object in the story feels clammier with each passing page. Over the course of the last 40 years, 2000AD has been repeatedly noted as having turned Mega City-1 (the home of its most famous character, Judge Dredd) into a character all of its own. The tone, the concept, the clamour, the craziness of the future urban conglomeration of the entire Eastern Seaboad of the United States —it all took decades to build up. Smith & Bagwell pull a similar trick here in just 3 months and with far fewer pages to do it with.
Edmund Bagwell worked for a variety of comics throughout his 29-year career, most notably at 2000AD, Deadline, Revolver, and Marvel UK. His work with John Smith on Cradlegrave was their first together as a creative team.
Bagwell’s artwork for Cradlegrave skews towards grubby realism. The characters of Shane, Craig, and Callum are all spotty, sportswear-clad working class young men. The exist in a world of security-shuttered corner shops crusted in graffiti. The warped, inhuman body horror that arrives later in the story juxtaposes against this almost-mundane normality so violently, it adds an extra dimension of unexpectedness to how Smith’s script sneaks it up on us. As a reader, you’re so used to seeing this familiar visual palatte of cheap tracksuits and alcopops set off against the buzzing, heat-stricken colour palatte of the estate’s sun-bleached concrete architecture, that when things get thematically dark (and boy does it get dark), Bagwell’s art following suit focuses the sensation of revulsion into a visceral slam.
The palatte choices of so much of Cradlegrave’s art double-down on this. At first you think it’s just a visual cue for the story’s unending heatwave, bleaching out colours to represent the sweltering effect the weather has on the concrete wasteland the characters inhabit, moving over to gloomy claustrophobia when the action moves inside the too-small council houses of the Ravenglade estate. Bagwell’s choices for colours get moodier as the weather of the story becomes ever more overcast, projecting a deeper and muggier sense of the oppressiveness that life on the estate projects. The harsher shadows and faded nicotine-stain browns that take over when characters start to penetrate the mysteries of Ted & Mary’s house become grimier and mould-riddled the closer the characters edge to the rotten truth hidden inside. It’s such a subtle piece of colouring but it enriches the emotional tone of Cradlegrave immeasurably.
Then there’s Bagwell’s more subtle line-drawn touches when it comes to individual scenes. The subtle shifts in posture and body language of the unruly local teens at a houseparty between just two panels in Cradlegrave provides more depth in character than the entire capes’n’spandex industry can generate in an entire month’s worth of gaudy splash-pages.
The feasting scene — a gang of feral youths guzzling the black milk straight from the source— is cinematic in its execution. Side-angles, keeping the truth out of shot until the last possible second, and keeping the identities of the gang mostly obscured beneath their hoodies — all of them contribute to an astonishing build-up of tension prior to a final, shocking reveal.
Cradlegrave’s only cover —published originally on issue #1633 of 2000AD and later re-worked for the collected edition as seen at the head of this essay — came a mere 3 years after the much-mocked “hug-a-hoodie” soundbite from then-leader of the UK’s parliamentary opposition, David Cameron. It perfectly captures the intrinsic fear so many in Britain have for the faceless, hyper-aggressive caricature that hoodies have built up in the collective consciousness of modern Britian. Lacking any of the usual sci-fi/occult/weirdo art that usually comes with a 2000AD cover, it still has oodles of menace. It’s the kind of threatening image that your Mum is petrified of. The hint of blood splatter up the front of the central figure’s frame solidifies our fear of imminent violence, with the facelessness of the anonymous gang carrying with it a subtler threat with it. If the story was only about gritty youth violence, why go to the trouble of masking the perpetrators in shadow? A side-effect of the story first appearing in 2000AD (a title that doesn’t do “normal” drama without some kind of sci-fi, horror, or fantasy twist) means we’re already desperate to know what unholy extras are being hidden from us in those darkened cowls.
Cradlegrave may have been the first time that Bagwell worke with writer John Smith, but it wouldn’t be their last. The pairing went on revive and revitalise Smith’s Indigo Prime series together, the titular agency of the story’s namesake being responsible for maintaining cohesion and balance across the multiverse. Yes, Indigo Prime is that kind of story, and thankfully 2000AD is still the kind of place that will happily run with the kind of weirdness.
Bagwell’s work on the piece straddles indimensionality via Kubrick (check out these pages on Bad Librarianship before the dialogue was added to see what I mean — they are simply stunning) with mutant fleshbeasts and it is magnificient for it. Bagwell’s equal comfort indepicting both the harsh realism of Cradlegrave’s council estate in one story and these kinds of cosmically unbelievable scenes of architecture beyond the realms of human understanding in another is a rare gift for an artist to have.
As mentioned earlier, sadly Edmund Bagwell died from pancreatic cancer on 14 May 2017, aged 50. I hope he knew just how much his work meant to so many readers out there.
Cradlegrave doesn’t stop to explain itself. It doesn’t have a clean little conclusion that ties up all its loose ends. There’s no government scientist getting neatly parachuted in at the start of Act Three to supply some expositionary context to the chaos that has and is unfolding during the climax. Cradlegrave’s writer, John Smith, often employs a blunt impenetrablity to both the macro- and minutiae-elements of his stories’ mythology and with Cradlegrave it is no different.
Throughout the story, Smith leaves the doors to the mysteries open just wide enough for us to peek through at the worst possible answers to our unanswered questions. He invites us in by tripping our curiousity just enough so we end up being complicit in the grotesque reveal of Ravenglade’s darkest secret. His writing doesn’t just draw us in, but makes us an accomplice to it. He makes you feel guilty for having wanted to see it, and revolted that you have.
Smith’s entire 2000AD career has been one of non-traditional storytelling. The aforementionde Indigo Prime, Devlin Waugh (a Dredd-verse based gay vampire killer for the Vatican), Firekind (a hard sci-fi concept involving hallucinogens and dragons, and itself a prototype for the fan-lauded by mainstream-ignored storytelling that Smith seems to revel in) and Tyranny Rex (a sporadic yet bizarrely long-running series of stories centred around a humanoid lizardwoman, bouncing between genres and never quite finding its niche even by 2000AD’s flexible standards) — Smith’s stories sound like someone who has thrown every idea from a particular derranged brainstorming session at a particularly weird wall to see what sticks. What separates them from being nothing but ooh-so-ZANY romps is the thought, the composure, the intent that his scripts carry. His concepts may be strange, but they all carry with them tough truths, hard resolutions, and characters that we are not only sympathetic to but recognise, their traits and humanity bourne out in their stories being the same that we see in the eyes of our friends and families in the really-real world.
Smith’s strengths as a writer can also be seen in Blackspot, a one-off 5-page story that saw the Smith and Bagwell reunite for the final time. A small not-officially-a-follow-up coda to Cradlegrave, it was originally published under the storytelling umbrella that is Tharg’s Terror Tales!, which is one of several banners that 2000AD presents one-off short stories under (others being time-travel/alt-history speculations of Time Twisters, the more traditional sci-fi Future Shocks, and more recently three-week 15 page filler pieces running as Tharg’s 3hrillers). These typically operate as arenas for new writers and artists to prove their mettle, but sometimes — as with Blackspot — they provide useful playgrounds for existing talents to excise ideas that don’t necessarily fit into existing story arcs or story structures.
Blackspot thrums with Lovecraftian overtones — there’s more than a whiff of The Dunwich Horror to it, with a formless beast tearing a swathe of destruction across the countryside — but delivers them via 5 pages of comic rather than 30-odd of prose. It provides a mischievious glance at the what-might-have-been future of the Cradlegrave universe. All story endings are merely the point we stop paying attention to a particular set of characters or situation — drama can continues to unfold for them regardless if an audience is watching. And it’s particularly neat how Smith shows he can take so many of the core elements of Cradlegrave, jumble them up with a few new ingredients, and throw out a cheeky new five-pager with them.
Cradlegrave’s purposeful brevity and self-contained nature has meant it hasn’t quite established as solid a reputation among the classics of 2000AD’s enormous catalogue as I think it deserves, but I hope that one day that will change. Perhaps its that stalwartly British-centric setting, with its gloomy timbre and despair-tinged tone that are what rules it out from becoming a breakout favourite among the ranks international tastemeakers/indie-snobs. The lack of blockbuster name recognition — he may be able to out-weird Gratn Morrison, out-gross Garth Ennis, and out-imagine Mark Millar, but the name “John Smith” will never give casual readers as much to cling on to as that trio offer — and more’s the pity.
It’s probably why (along with his goddamn near-unGoogle-able name) that Smith hasn’t made as significant a splash outside of the UK market as he deserves to, despite being able to out-write most of his transatlantically-tempted contemporaries who have been enthusiastically feeding the great beast of US comics since the UK comics brain-drain of the late 80s.
The climax of Cradlegrave is chaotic and violent, flipping between the micro and the macro, with things coming to a head both the ongoing confrontation with Skully, and the murky goings on surrounding Ted & Mary’s house. Cradlegrave has no happy ending, no conclusive resolution, and provides precious little hope for the future of most of it’s characters.Ravenglade ends against a backdrop of fire, urban dissent spilling over to violence and chaos; with the smoking remains of the Grenfell Tower disaster still looming across the London skyline, the tensions and inequality within the urban milleau of modern Britain feel as thick and present as ever. Like Cradlegrave, where the estate’s residents turned inward to tear at each other before stomping out the sources of their misery, contemporary Britain feels very much like it could storm in equal or opposite directions.
Outside of the medium of comics, Cradlegrave feels closest in tone to Ben Wheatley’s divisive 2011 movie Kill List, and not only because both have been largely (and unfairly) overlooked within their own medium and genre. Both feature protagonista struggling against forces they only partially comprehend (albeit the brooding hitmen protagonists swapped out for one centred around a Peugoet 306 full of ASBO-branded teenagers), and both feature a conclusion that leaves the audience feeling battered and unbalanced (the confusing cultist sabbat of Wheatley’s film is similarly replaced with the incubation of something more unnatural and unnerving in Cradlegrave). But perhaps most tellingly, both are examples of a fundamentally British expression of misery and violence.
Unlike the hopelessness that riddles so much sci-fi, horror, and occult storytelling, much of Cradlegrave’s hopelessness comes from the inevitablity of modern society’s capacity of self-destruction. Shane may escape Ravenglade at the end of the story, but who and what does he leave behind? Throughout the story he struggles with the idea that he may never escape from who he is. The society he finds himself within hides its true nature under masks — be they Adidas hoodies of the youth, or the net curtains of a pensioners’ terraced house. At first they disguise their state of social decay, and latterly they contain their insane horror unleashed within the estate.
The bottled-up panic and reactive violence (reminiscent of both the aforementioned High Rise and Ballard’s oft-overloooked Millenium People) and the cold sober ending are a very British resolution to a horror story. The hinterland of America has never ceased to be a fertile ground for horror; the scale of the continent allows for many dark corners in which both human and inhuman menaces can flourish. The UK, on the other hand, is seen as too small a place physically, too known, too mapped, too connected to make the kind of stories that hinge on an aspect of the unknown to work. By pitching itself entirely within the confines of a single urban development, Cradlegrave side-steps this to walls itself within and without the wider nation it exists in.
It’s that setting that allows Cradlegrave to exist as it does — a glorious coming together of the horrors familiar, obscene, unknown, and unnatural. As a bastion of modern British horror, it is without peer, and is more than deserving of your utmost attention.