Every haunted house has the same damn problem. Somebody’s violated a taboo, and until that sin is expiated, the stain of corruption spreads steadily through the sinner’s abode. In the case of Pixu: The Mark of Evil, the stain is literal—a raggedy black scribble that grows like kudzu across an apartment building’s walls and ceilings, snaking its tendrils through the empty space around objects and infecting everything and everyone in its path. It’s a visual conceit more than a narrative device: a trick that ties together four concurrent, linked horror stories by four cartoonists. Becky Cloonan, Vasilis Lolos, and twin brothers Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá have been publishing their work side by side for a few years; here, they rotate short chapters, with each artist following the residents of one of the building’s four apartments as the mark’s madness overtakes and destroys them.
Pixu cleaves to the horror genre’s conventions. Its sources of revulsion aren’t terribly original—violent slaughter, mental possession, obsession with cleanliness to the point of self-mutilation, betrayal by loved ones—and its dialogue is terse, reheated melodrama. A damaged teddy bear that appears repeatedly might have been replaced, with equal subtlety, by a blinking neon sign reading hey! we’ve got a symbol of lost innocence for you right here! (The awful secret revealed near the end, incidentally, will be familiar to anyone who’s read a story written in the past few decades that involves an awful secret.)
But this is also horror art. The story is mostly an opportunity for the cartoonists to cut loose from the comforts of straightforward representation. There are a handful of genuinely creepy individual images, like Cloonan’s drawing of a woman staring out a window, absently snacking on a bowl of her lover’s hair. The psychological core of Pixu, though, has more to do with visual style (and visual misdirection); the things we can’t quite see are always scarier than the things we can, which is why the artists’ imprecision is appropriate here. In an early sequence, in which a young woman is attacked in the basement, Cloonan never shows us what’s knocked her down or what it’s doing to her; instead, she offers a close-up of the woman’s baffled and terrified face, followed by a door slamming shut.
It’s fairly easy to tell who’s drawn which sequences—Lolos, for instance, favors high-contrast patches of black-and-white and draws crisply angular faces that recall Italian cartoonist Hugo Pratt; Moon’s rubbery, blobby figures are much wilder caricatures, including an old man who seems to be a set of ears and eyebrows that has somehow grown a body. All the artists, however, share a fiery, decisive line that bends stiffly here and there, as if it’s been hammered into shape. (The book is printed in black and a sickly gray-green—a two-color scheme like the one Moon and Bá used to striking effect in Casanova, their hyperdense sci-fi collaboration with writer Matt Fraction.)
Bá, in fact, nearly gives the game away when the evil scribble creeps up the side of an artist’s blank canvas. Horror stories are always about a seemingly uncontainable form of entropy. If the cartoonist’s task is to finesse the unruliness of the physical world into storytelling pictures, then a meaningless splash of ink indicates a lapse, perhaps purposeful. For all the book’s clichés, it gets a tremendous charge from its artists’ flirtation with chaos—the thrill of making marks they might not be able to control.