THE DEATHS OF HENRY KING BY JESSE BALL, BRIAN EVENSON, AND LILLI Carré
Art
Characterization
Plot
Summary
Uncivilized Books’ THE DEATHS OF HENRY KING narrates the many deaths -- some gruesome, some unlikely, all fatal -- of the person(s) known as Henry King. With bold woodblock prints and neat text, THE DEATHS OF HENRY KING is the ideal graphic novel for existential philosophers and Edward Gorey fans alike.
95 %
Morbid Fascination
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From Uncivilized Books comes THE DEATHS OF HENRY KING, a morbidly fascinating account of Henry King’s many strange ends. The mysterious Henry King and his equally mysterious comeuppances are tantalizing, humorous, morose, and disturbing — often all at once. THE DEATHS OF HENRY KING challenges the boundary between life and death, often relying on the absurdity of both to shock and entice. 

THE DEATHS OF HENRY KING
Image courtesy of Uncivilized Books.

Poet Jesse Ball, writer Brian Evenson, and illustrator Lilli Carré bring to life (and subsequently kill off) their hapless creation Henry King in their new work. Featuring numbered stories with woodblock art, the cut-and-paste style gives a zine-like effect to the graphic novel. Unsurprisingly, THE DEATHS OF HENRY KING studies the act of dying. The text describes Henry King’s numerous and bizarre deaths. Henry King’s identity is ultimately lost and readers are left wondering who Henry King could be.

Exquisite Corpses

THE DEATHS OF HENRY KING evokes the Exquisite Corpse game. In this game, each artist illustrates one part of the character’s body on a folded sheet of paper so that the other artists can’t see the previous drawings until they complete the whole body. The result is the Exquisite Corpse: a horrific and whimsical monster. Ball, Everson, and Carré’s work is much the same, demanding both macabre sense of humor and reverent attention. Each new death is added with little regard for previous accounts.

THE DEATHS OF HENRY KING
Image courtesy of Uncivilized Books.

 

Like Edward Gorey’s GASHLYCRUMB TINIES that alphabetizes the outlandish deaths of unfortunate little children, THE DEATHS OF HENRY KING enumerates various deaths in brief entries. The brevity makes it difficult to fix an emotional response to the text. Some deaths, by murder or suicide, are tragic. Others, by happenstance, are banal. Still others, including otter attack, are morbidly humorous. Interspersed in these are the psychologically troubling deaths that scrutinize the boundary between death and life. For example, Henry King’s bizarre desire to pound himself into a crack in the wall with a frying pan. Or the troubling scene of waiting in a crowded room for your name, Henry King, to be called up. The text often invites laughter but ultimately provokes an array of emotions, suggesting there is no perfect response to any death.

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Imaging Death

Lilli Carré’s artwork is reminiscent of gravestone markings with a flare of outsider art aesthetics. Outsider art is art produced by self-taught artists who are relatively distanced from the mainstream art world. Carré, a highly trained artist who studied at Northwestern University and The Art Institute of Chicago, brings the charm of outsider art to THE DEATHS OF HENRY KING. The childish figures have geometric proportions and the subtle details in crisp black or white lines capture the crux of each text. Though often humorous, the illustrations are not gentle; some are even gruesome and morose. Henry King looks relatively undisturbed with a hammer in his head. Although reasonably shocked by the lightning bolt through his body, Henry King still seems somewhat unperturbed, as do the others around him. The outsider style gives the character(s) Henry King a  sense of naivety in the face of impending death.

THE DEATHS OF HENRY KING
Image courtesy of Uncivilized Books.

Carré’s images serve to ground the text and take the book from morbid poetry to an existential zine. The stark woodblock pieces are as irreverent and poignant as the vignettes. In black and white, the images tempt the reader to dwell on some of Henry King’s deaths and the transition between life and death. Carré carefully strikes a balance between the spiritual (such as a heartbreaking angel, or the ritualistic gathering of women around the head of Henry King) and the comical (make special note of the man-eating otter).   

Uncanny Henry Kings

The sheer number of Henry King’s strange and remarkable deaths make for an uncanny read. The mysterious repetition of death scenes is unsettling, with each new death serving as a memento mori, an object that reminds us of our mortality. On several occasions, Henry King’s identity doubles, often obscuring the “original” Henry King. With so many Henry Kings, some warped beyond recognition as such, it is impossible to avoid the question: am I “Henry King,” too, or at least some variation of his character?

It is a little surprising to find such a powerful indictment in such a simple comic. At times you will feel sorry for the unlucky Henry King who just can’t seem to catch a break. At times you may even feel a certain existential angst for both Henry King and yourself. But Ball, Everson, and Carré won’t let you rest there for long, and usually will throw you a bone — Henry King’s bone, most likely. Schadenfreude, pleasure derived from another person’s bad luck, may be the emotional saving grace of this comic.

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Final Thoughts: So Many Ways to Die

THE DEATHS OF HENRY KING
Image courtesy of Uncivilized Books.

The text is methodical and neat, in harsh relief to the many messy images of Henry King’s deaths. With so many details of Henry’s King’s deaths and associated thoughts, it is absurd to look for meaning. However, Ball and Everson seem to draw on philosopher Albert Camus who studied life, death, and the absurd. Camus wrote, “it takes time to live. Like any work of art, life needs to be thought about.” THE DEATHS OF HENRY KING turn the many ways of dying into an allegory for the many possibilities life offers. Also like Camus, Ball, Everson, and Carré do not stray away from pointing out the absurdity of death and life, making room for all emotional responses to the many deaths of Henry King. THE DEATHS OF HENRY KING is morbidly fascinating and will appeal to those with a sense of absurdity.

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