Friday, September 15, 2017

The Morbid Fancy of Basic Gogos


In 1914, authorities caved under pressure from the family of a woman murdered in Aurora, Ill., to try a dubious forensics technique called optography to identify her killer. The idea was floated by an "occultist" who went unidentified in news reports, who argued that photographs of the victim's retinas might show police the face of her killer. (Spoiler: They did not.)

But there was a morbid fancy to the proposal that captured the imagination of the public. Like any good superstition, optography is something that sounds like it ought to work ... at least, to those of us with an eighth-grade understanding of human anatomy. More to the point, wouldn't you really like to see those photos?

It was almost certainly this curiosity that swayed detectives to jeopardize their careers by resorting to tactics in the same ballpark as voodoo. It wasn't so much the mystery of her death they were trying to solve, but the mystery of death, itself. Common sense has no place in such a quest.

In that regard, I sympathize with the hapless detectives in this investigation. Once you realize your own fragile mortality, you spend the rest of your life coming to terms with it. Some dive into it with abandon by collecting crime scene photos, souvenirs from serial killers and other "true crime" garbage that makes pornography look like a Charlotte Brontë novel. I understand that repulsive fascination, even though I don't share it.

Then there are those who avoid the subject of death at almost any cost. Not to put too fine a point on things, but these folks are boring and don't deserve much attention. If they can't be bothered to analyze their own lives, why bother doing it for them?

Those of us who love horror movies – especially those of us who choose to occasionally write about them – occupy the middle lane. If you're visiting this website, you already know our morbid fancy is often difficult to justify. It's one thing to watch the occasional horror movie, goes the common wisdom. Who doesn't do that? But if you have shelves full of horror movies, books and/or comics, you must be some kind of weirdo.

These points were dueling in my head when I awoke this morning to news that artist Basil Gogos had died. Gogos' work was very much in the style of optography, the kinds of visions you might skim from the retinas of victims in a Universal Monsters movie. Monster Kids grew up with this imagery – seemingly captured in the glow of a lighting bolt – of Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff and even Jonathan Frid leering at us as they prepared to strike. These are not comforting images, but there is an undeniable beauty to them. They're hypnotic, even, highlighting our awkward, electric romance with death. Instead of the the skeletons and horned devils that frequent classical art, Gogos relies on recognizable pop culture icons. I might stumble over my words (or even begin an essay with a probably inappropriate anecdote about a murder) when trying to express myself. But that was never a problem for Gogos, whose art screamed: When we watch horror movies, this is what we feel – and this is why we love them.

When I met him a few years ago in Charlotte, N.C., he was sitting alongside much younger, less established (and yes, less talented) artists at a comic convention. While I'm incredibly grateful for the opportunity to have met him, my gut response was "What the fuck is Basil Gogos doing here?" No disrespect for you kids trying to get your web comic off the ground, but it seemed to me that we might have taken Gogos for granted. Matt Fraction's lines at the convention were impenetrable. There were no lines of any sort for Gogos, and it still pisses me off.

NOTE: Gogos appears to have left us with one final mystery: that of his birth date. Both his Facebook page and Wikipedia entry state a birthday of March 12, 1949. As news of his death made the rounds this morning, I was surprised to learn he was only 69 years old. (The man I met in Charlotte seemed much older.) But I was even more surprised to see that he would have been just 11 years old when his first Famous Monsters of Filmland cover was published in 1960. His bio also says his family immigrated to America from Egypt when he was 16 years old, which only makes things more confusing. It will be interesting to see how his formal obituary handles these discrepancies in his biography. 

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