Festively themed work can often go overlooked simply because the window of relevant reviewing opportunity is, by its nature, a restricted one. However, it would seem remiss to let that reality restrain us from giving a mention to one of the season’s standout books this year, A Christmas Bestiary by Benni Bødker and John Kenn Mortensen.
It should be mentioned first that this deliciously dark collection of text and illustrations is not comics work in presentation but it is published by venerable US alt, indie and experimental comics publisher Fantagraphics Books. While there’s obviously a long tradition of Christmassy supernatural storytelling going back to Dickens and M.R. James there does seem to have been something of a revival of interest in recent years in the more grotesque elements of seasonal folklore. The figure of the Krampus being brought to abundant life in film, prose and comics is proof enough of that.
It’s this morbid vein of myth and legend that A Christmas Bestiary looks to tap into, with 24 unsettling characters from across European folk history getting their moment in… well not quite the spotlight… but certainly in the shadows herein. Designed to either be dipped into or to be read daily as some kind of gruesome Advent Calendar, A Christmas Bestiary gives us geographical information, a short introduction to each creature or set of entities from Bødker (translated by Christopher Sand-Iversen), a danger rating (!), and then either a single or double-page black and white visualisation of the Christmas horrors themselves from Mortenson.
And so we are introduced to such eldritch wonders as Denmark’s Yule Wight, a hideous cross between dragon and ox that makes itself an unwelcome home guest at Christmas; Scandinavia’s pig demon the Gloso who haunts graveyards during the festivities; Iceland’s 80 different Yule Lads whose antics range from the mischievous to thrashing children with sheeps’ lungs; and the German Perchta who is a beautiful, kindly spirit when facing forwards but whose back half is a nefarious female Krampus-type.
Mortensen’s gloomy but hypnotic illustrations ensure this is a collection of imagery that doesn’t need an accompanying holiday celebration to supplement it. Indeed, so stunning is each single illo that the reader will come away from A Christmas Bestiary with a rich appetite for more of Mortensen’s intensely chilling visuals. It’s a fascinating study of folklore in its own right and an excellent starting point for anyone wanting to investigate these traditions further.
Benni Bødker (W), John Kenn Mortensen (A) Christopher Sand-Iversen (T) • Fantagraphics Books, $24.99
Review by Andy Oliver