Writer Ezra Claytan Daniels and artist Ben Passmore’s new graphic novel BTTM FDRS is a coy, gruesome satire of gentrification. Taking place in the fictional Chicago neighborhood Bottomyards (riffing on Back of the Yards), it blends discussions around race relations, cultural appropriation, and urban injustice with a creepy plot centered around a mysterious force which metaphorically feeds on those very phenomena.
Bottomyards is a rundown area now getting its first taste of “renewal,” as landlords are beginning to lure in well-off outsiders with cheap rents. One new move-in is Darla, an aspiring fashion designer with a complicated relationship to the place. She’s originally from there, but her upwardly mobile family then moved out, and she’s since grown up in wealthier (and much whiter) environs. She’s contrasted with her white BFF Cynthia, who’s almost stereotypical in her enthusiasm for the “authenticity” of the neighborhood. Darla’s mixture of ambition, guilt, and reticence over the frictions between her Blackness, status, career, and relationships with her friends and family forms the backbone of the story’s arc. While there are plenty of broad (and funny) jabs at artwashing, hipsters, and both NIMBYs and YIMBYs, the book doesn’t settle for an easy examination of the issues at hand.
Darla soon suspects there’s something off about her new apartment building (in which she is currently one of the very few residents). The odd noises aren’t merely leaky pipes or rusty fixtures, and some of the blight is suspiciously organic … and mobile. There’s something else in the building, and soon its presence goes from disturbing to actively malevolent. The plot recalls the films of both Jordan Peele and David Cronenberg, with flavor from manga creator Junji Ito, Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira, and J.G. Ballard as well. But the nature of the satire and setting puts Daniels’ script not just in the horror-comedy genre, but the more specific category of apartment horror.
This is an under-examined but distinct realm of fiction, drawing on the unique elements of apartment living. Other examples include Cronenberg’s Shivers, Ballard’s High-Rise and its film adaptation, Otomo’s graphic novel Domu: A Child’s Dream and his film World Apartment Horror. The contradictions of experiencing simultaneous isolation and inextricably united community have been fodder for writers ever since the rapid increase in urbanization after World War II. An apartment is your home, but also just a few rooms. You are cut off from those around you, even as hundreds or even thousands of people are stacked together in one building. Such a setting can easily shift from familiar to sinister, as urban density becomes a trap. Such is the growing spookiness in BTTM FDRS, which melds social horror with body horror, as the thing in the apartment building integrates its inhabitants, the gentrified space literally consuming humanity.
Passmore’s artwork skillfully balances the wry comedy with the escalating scary moments. The key to body horror is to make sure it’s properly gross, and he concocts some terrifically vile-looking creatures and scenarios. There’s an identifiable arc in the way the line blurs between what in the building is stone and metal and what is made of flesh. Passmore’s colors, often working with just a few tones in any given scene, evocatively convey the feel of each scene and location. In comics, great scares often rely on alarming panel transitions or page break cliffhangers, and the book skillfully utilizes these as well.
Beyond the creepiness, there’s unease underlying BTTM FDRS which stems not from the monsters but from Darla’s questioning of her place in her community. This sense of alienation, and the suggestion that gentrification will outlive any scientific abomination, are what ultimately linger. Unresolved questions are more haunting than any lurking creature.
BTTM FDRS is available from Fantagraphics on June 25.