Noel Freibert’s Old Ground is, without a doubt, one of the more curious offerings I am likely to cover in this column in 2015. Set in the confines of the dilapidated Maple Grove Cemetery – a crumbling environment that is home to a number of bizarre inhabitants – it’s a showcase for Freibert’s malleable, freeform artistic style and random sense of creepiness.
Two interweaving relationships provide the main focus of Old Ground #1 with a subplot involving the cemetery’s imminent demolition pulling all the strands together. Providing an interesting contrast in panel-to-panel sequencing we have, on the one hand, the frantic and slapstick, cartoon-like antics of a rather dense and lovestruck dog and a scythe-wielding frog identified only as Otto (below left). On the other we have a static, subdued conversation between two gravebound, unseen children reflecting on the nature of their deaths and their afterlife existences (below right).
For the main part the 50-odd pages of Old Ground have a rather casual, unconstrained feel to them. Freibert seems less concerned with a rigidly structured story and more intrigued by presenting an almost arbitrary assortment of morbidly humorous dialogue and near stream-of-consciousness dark imagery. If you’re looking for comics composition that adopts a more traditional plot format then these eccentric graveyard antics probably won’t be for you. There’s no easily discernible cohesive narrative as such at play here – so far anyway – but that’s made up for by the fluidity of Freibert’s visuals which have their own entrancing draw to them.
The ever morphing perspective and the distinctive use of light and shadow give the world the artist creates here a flexibly grotesque and unpredictably organic appearance. The strip has a tendency to digress into strange visual asides – a kind of freaky free association of ideas – that is inventive and playful, albeit in an often unrepentantly violent kind of way. The dog character who inhabits the cemetery, for example, suddenly finds him/herself re-enacting the Stations of the Cross in a moment of Christ-like canine suffering, and there’s an entire extended segment where the two dead boys become preoccupied with the pain-inducing possibilities of fish hooks and nails that will make you squirm in uneasiness at its layers of grisly contemplation.
Old Ground #1 is gruesomely uncomfortable in places but – as incongruous as it sounds – in a weirdly endearing way. It remains to be seen if future issues will build on what’s been set up here to explain some of the bizarreness on show or whether Freibert will simply continue with this free-flowing procession of melancholic meditations and brutal clowning. If it’s the latter then I suspect multiple issues of this approach could see the novelty of his presentational style wear thin very quickly but, for the moment at least, he’s caught my imagination. It’s hard not to become captivated by such visceral yet pliable imagery after all…