I have a very complicated relationship with didactic comics. Sure, nowadays there are a million achingly earnest cartoons circulating on Tumblr instructing the reader in the head-spinning nuances of contemporary identity politics, but the history of using comics to teach is as old as the comics medium itself. For example, in the 20th Century, comics were used to warn military men about the dangers of STDs and to teach children in India how to behave by using hilariously grisly imagery. Didactic comics want you to think learning can be super-fun because comics can be super-fun! But let’s face it–most of these kinds of comics are using a sugary coating to get us to swallow some otherwise unpalatable social engineering pill. Hey, guess what poster-making people? I’ll leave banana peels all over the goddamn place and slip if I want to because I’m grown-ass woman and I do what I want and there is NOTHING YOU CAN DO ABOUT IT.
What happens, though, when one is handed a comic that teaches about something that’s already great? Delight–absolute delight, which is precisely what one experiences when reading Morbid Tales! A Tribute to Celtic Frost, an illustrated compilation of essays, interviews, and stories edited by cartoonist Mark Rudolph. Following on the heels of Rudolph’s Satan Is Alive: A Tribute to Mercyful Fate, Morbid Tales takes a similarly eclectic, but always celebratory, approach to the figure at its center. In much the way that the Mercyful Fate book is really a book about King Diamond, Morbid Tales is really a book about the man at the center of Celtic Frost. In fact, the simple thesis at the heart of Morbid Tales is that Celtic Frost mastermind and noted Yelp contributor Tom G. Warrior is fucking awesome in all of his bands, a fact with which few metalheads would argue.
Let’s take a detour to talk about the enduring appeal of Swiss metallers Celtic Frost. The band was born from the ashes of proto-black metal band Hellhammer, expanding on that band’s transformation of the Satanism and punkish aggression of Venom into something more sinister. Perhaps the most fascinating thing about Celtic Frost is the fact that the band defied genre orthodoxies throughout its career, with 1987’s Into the Pandemonium finding the group at the apex of its experimentations. Not only could Celtic Frost deliver vicious, lo-fi metal anthems, but the band was unafraid to wander into musical territories more closely associated to the likes of gothic crypt crawlers Christian Death or industrial heavyweights Ministry. Always stretching the limits of metal, there were some pretty significant missteps in the group’s 24-year run (1988’s Cold Lake being a rather notorious attempt at crossover appeal), but every Celtic Frost record is a testament to Tom G. Warrior’s seemingly insatiable urge to explore and reinvent.
Celtic Frost’s–or more specifically, Warrior’s–relationship with fellow Swiss-born visionary H.R. Giger means that the band is closely linked with the surrealist painter’s instantly recognizable occult erotic imagery. Giger’s work found its way onto the cover and interior art of Celtic Frost’s To Mega Therion, with the artist refusing to accept payment from the band for its use. Warrior and Giger shared a close friendship, with the musician posting a touching eulogy for his mentor after Giger’s death in 2014.
With Morbid Tales, the link between Celtic Frost’s music and intense, bizarre visuals is further cemented. What makes Morbid Tales so special is that the artists and writers who’ve created it have been given free reign to explore the subject. The tone shifts from gruesome horror to biographical fact to cheeky satire, but there isn’t an entry that feels like anything but the product of sincere fandom. Loose caricature, precise linework, and art brut sketches live side by side in the book, a fact that honors Celtic Frost’s varied musical output. Some artists create visualizations of Warrior’s lyrics, inking battles between hideous monsters as in Ed Luce’s “Procreation of the Wicked,” which features the cartoonist’s signature musclebound figures locked in a grotesque, apocalyptic battle. Vasilis Lolos uses his sharp, attenuated figurative style to tell the “true story” behind Celtic Frost’s hair-metal-tastic “Cherry Orchards” video. Rudolph provides cartoonish portraits of the metal luminaries like Fenriz, Scott Kelly, and Ivar Bjørnson who provide commentary on Warrior throughout the book. Perhaps my favorite piece in the book is “Only Cat Piss Is Real,” written by Ides of Gemini’s J. Bennett and illustrated by Bruno Guerriero, which tells the tale of Tom G. Warrior’s enmity for his mother’s cats, phrased in the musician’s signature bombastic style.
The presence of Giger can be felt throughout the book, with the artist making appearances in multiple pieces. Luce’s comic mentioned above includes a reimagining of the multi-headed beast from the cover To Mega Therion and J. Bennett* imagines Giger’s exacting and eccentric mentorship of Warrior in a short story illustrated by Mark Rudolph.
*Another thing I learned from this book is that J. Bennett would probably be amazingly hilarious to hang out with.
Each contribution to Morbid Tales is a heartfelt tribute to the band, and to Tom G. Warrior’s creative spirit. A wonderfully evil trip through the work of a legendary band, this book deserves a place on the shelves of adventurous metalheads.