I’m not a fan of snarking on subcultures to which I don’t belong. While a lot of groups outside of the mainstream may look tacky, bizarre, and/or delusional* to people who don’t belong to them, I understand that those same criticisms can be made against the eccentric things I love. It’s best to adopt a Pass/Fail test when it comes to these subjects, asking oneself if the offbeat group in question is making the world more interesting by being in it. Chances are, they’re adding to life’s rich tapestry of weirdness by following their own signals and we should consider ourselves fortunate to be alive at a time when we can witness these far-out forms of expression.
*For example: Furries, LARPers, and Libertarians
In this spirit, it’s a blessing that England’s Cradle of Filth are celebrating their twenty-fifth year of satanic existence. Led by Dani Filth, the sole founding member still active in the band, Cradle of Filth produces capital-G Gothic music. They are perhaps the most Gothic band in the world, producing a musical pastiche of gruesomely sexualized imagery drawn from literary, historical, and pop cultural sources. Take, for example, Godspeed on the Devil’s Thunder, their 2008 concept album about Gilles de Rais, the 15th Century French nobleman and colleague of Joan of Arc who went on to become a child murdering black magician. Boasting EIGHTEEN contributors to the recording (including a full choir), it’s a fantastical mix of history, hearsay, and hyperbole narrated by Doug Bradley, the actor who played the demon Pinhead in the Hellraiser series. This embrace of excess along with a pell-mell combination of highbrow and lowbrow source material characterizes the Cradle of Filth experience.
The word “experience” is used deliberately here; the band offers much more than just aural over-stimulation. Part of the secret to Cradle of Filth’s success is the complete aesthetic surrounding the band. One can identify a piece of Cradle of Filth merch across a crowded room. Bearing slogans like “Jesus Is A Cunt” and frequently emblazoned with gore-covered, pneumatic-busted demonesses, the style is unmistakable. A Cradle of Filth shirt can go beyond the pale of mere bad taste to occupy the same heady atmosphere as the infamous “Metal Up Your Ass” and “Charlie Don’t Surf” shirts. In much the same way that Dani Filth has a constantly rotating stable of musicians that participate in the band’s albums, he’s worked with a number of visual artists to bring his vision to life. Film distributor, director, and fetish photographer Nigel Wingrove was an early Cradle of Filth collaborator who would go on to proudly claim the crown as the only director to have a film banned in the UK on account of its blasphemous content. It’s perhaps unsurprising, then, that a photograph by this director of nunsploitation epics appears on the aforementioned “Jesus Is A Cunt” shirt.
Also unsurprising is the fact that a band whose music is as heavily narrative as Cradle of Filth’s would look to create a licensed comic book. It’s maybe a little surprising, though, that a band with that kind of profile would turn to Kickstarter to produce the project. However–to hammer this turn of phrase completely into the ground–it’s actually fairly surprising that the creators of the comic would offer to draw Kickstarter contributors into the book, but more about that later. The product of this self-financed labor of love is Cradle of Filth: The Curse of Venus Aversa, written by Dani Filth and comics veteran Kurt Amacker and illustrated by Montgomery Borror, and it’s just as bonkers as you’d expect.
I first found out about the existence of Curse when one of the smartest people I know emailed to inform me that there’s a Cradle of Filth “origin story” that features Oscar Wilde as a character. Let’s shift our gaze for a few sentences to the person of Dani Filth. It’s pretty clear that the man has read more than his fair share of classic Gothic and Decadent literature and that he understands the grotesque visual vocabulary of those books. As a fellow Briton, it’s possible that Filth views himself as coming from the same artistic heritage as Wilde, and he’s not entirely wrong. Both men have produced work that’s needled the establishment by using provocative religious themes, both have employed sexual imagery in their writing, and both have created florid, rhyming poetry. Dani Filth, it could be argued, is what Oscar Wilde would be if Oscar Wilde had a taste for bondage gear and had suffered a head injury while doing motorcycle stunts.
There are issues with The Curse of Venus Aversa, but “lack of ambition” is not one of them. The story of a 19th Century libertine and poet working under the pseudonym Lord Daniel Impudicus, the comic is jam-packed with the kind of satanic rituals, overwrought prose, impossible cleavage, and gory vampirism one would expect given the source. Filth and Amacker have a great time stretching the thesaurus to its breaking point while cramming in as many band references as possible. Characters come across a book called the Gospel of Filth (titled after the lavishly-illustrated band bio published in 2010), Cradle of Filth muse Elizabeth Bathory is mentioned, and portions of Lord Impudicus’ scandalous poetry bear an uncanny resemblance to the band’s lyrics. Oh, and Lord Impudicus and Oscar Wilde get into a drunken street fight, which is one of my favorite things that has ever happened in any comic book, ever. Curse is delightfully self-aware and unrepentant of its tacky-albeit-grandiose horror.
In a lot of ways, Curse is as much an ode to Cradle of Filth fandom as it is to the band itself. Sure, the book creates an epic backstory for the band that involves devil worship and connects Dani Filth to a line of tortured genius poets, but perhaps the most unique aspect of the book is a result of its crowdfunding technique. A lot of comics Kickstarters offer commissions and portraits by their creators and perhaps at some ludicrously high pledge level, a very small number of “cameo appearances” are offered. Such is not the case with Curse, which offered to draw fans into the book at the modest $110 and $150 pledge levels. There were ninety takers on these pledges, which enriches the book with what can only be described as flagrantly non-period-accurate details in its last half. Our frock-coated protagonist winds up at a vampire ball surrounded by party goers wearing stingy-brim fedoras, sunglasses, and emo-swoop haircuts. The book was specifically written to include as many fan portraits as possible, which is quite gracious and thoughtful, if you stop to think about it. It’s a tribute to the band’s love of its fans that a significant portion of the art in the book has been tailored to include these diehard supporters. Sure, it means the overall atmosphere is more Hot Topic than House of Usher, but I’m pretty sure that suits the book’s built-in audience just fine.
I never, ever want Cradle of Filth to stop being Cradle of Filth. The band’s flamboyantly over-the-top approach to the Gothic is spiritually consistent with the pejorative original usage of the term to describe an aesthetic seen as ugly and unruly. Far from distancing itself from such opinions, Cradle of Filth embraces its ugliness and unruliness, and then adds a whole bunch of ultra-melodic keyboards to the mix, effectively flipping the double bird to the haters in much the same way as Lord Impudicus does to his pursuers towards the book’s climax. Never change, Dani Filth and Co.; keep huffing that ether and shine on, you mad bastards.