August 12, 2019

Everyone Thinks This Is Normal: Kawai Shen reviews BTTM FDRS by Ezra Claytan Daniels and Ben Passmore

BTTM FDRS is a horror comic written by Ezra Claytan Daniels and drawn by Ben Passmore. The story centers around Darla, a young black artist who moves into a cheap apartment in Bottomyards, a formerly thriving working-class neighborhood in South Chicago. At first, it seems as though Darla and her white bestie, Cynthia, will overcome their initial reservations about Bottomyards. They quickly warm up to the opportunities presented by the neighborhood and its residents: a thriving cultural scene populated by young artists - and potential buyers drawn to them. However, they are unable to shake their unease about the new apartment and eventually discover that there is much more to fear than they could imagine...
True to the horror genre, BTTM FDRS introduces a social anxiety - in this case, gentrification - and quarantines it in tangible, monstrous bodies. The title itself is pretty clever. Bottom Feeders references the residents of Bottomyards but the manner in which it is spelled (all caps, sans vowels) suggests how newcomers see the neighborhood: a fashionable trend. This begs the question: who are the bottom feeders? Long-term residents at the bottom of the American social class? Landlords seeking "artistic" tenants with an eye for property investment? Newer residents and businesses displacing older ones? Anyone extracting whatever cultural capital they can from the next person one rung lower on the social ladder? Or perhaps the answer is not as figurative as it seems.
This critical, but playful and open-ended manner of addressing a social issue is maintained throughout the comic. Views of gentrification are tackled directly, but they are filtered through the characters' personal history with Bottomyards so it’s never didactic. How they speak - and don't speak - about the ways race and class privilege play out in their lives is one of the comic's strengths. Dialogue mercifully sticks to subjective experiences rather than academic theories about gentrifiers. Word bubbles, after all, preclude the kind of preachy monologuing one can find in other mediums like theatre. Instead, you have revealing exchanges, from the landlord who calls Darla "Donna" to Cynthia tearing up over how she can't help being born white.
What I appreciated most about BTTM FDRS is how the neighborhood is humanized. So often, "rough" neighborhoods are stereotyped and stigmatized in the media, which in turn stereotypes and stigmatizes residents. BTTM FDRS instead invites us to view the Bottomyards as a place with a rich history - and its older residents as people with full and complex lives, whose identities do not revolve around their displacement. Of particular note is Katherine, a black adjunct history professor who advises Darla, "No matter what you have, no matter how little it is, they're gonna take it from you eventually." Without resorting to spoilers, BTTM FDRS gives you not only the what and the who of this equation, but the how and the where.
The artwork also gives Bottomyards a friendlier treatment. Instead of an industrial palette of rust and concrete, everything is rendered in saturated colors that could have been derived from a handful of Starburst and Skittles candies. Passmore's palettes often draw on complementary color blocking or split schemes for a dynamic and pleasing effect. It jars readers’ expectations of a horror comic as well as underscoring the neighborhood’s new bright and shiny reputation. At times, this choice proves effective and can give a sense of a creeping, lurid, psychedelic nausea. However, at other times, I found this style detracted from any sense of actual fear. It's difficult to feel afraid for your protagonist getting bashed to a pulp when the walls are a sunny yellow and she’s covered in millennial pink goo.
If there's something about BTTM FDRS I find unsettling, it's not the actual horror or threatening action. It's also not a sense that Daniels and Passmore are exploiting the subject matter - unlike a lot of art dealing with "social issues" I never feel the story is being manufactured to profit from a white gaze (in fact, this issue is addressed in the comic itself when Darla criticizes a black musician for profiting from dressing like a pilgrim). For me, I think it's the candy-colored casualness of it all.
There is one image I cannot shake from my mind from when I was living around Chicago, right in the heart of the city on Michigan Avenue, an area that is all but calcified with a concentration of wealth. It was a sunny afternoon. A man was panhandling on the sidewalk. On his upper thigh was an open, festering sore about the size of my hand, fingers spread. He had clearly been wounded for some time without treatment, yet he was sitting mere blocks away from a hospital. The image struck me - still strikes me - with a visceral horror. It wasn’t the wound itself. I used to volunteer in a hospital and I know sick bodies. It was the understanding that here was a man being denied healthcare in an area so monied, I could practically smell the filthy lucre in the air. And what made this all so surreal to me was not how calm the pedestrians walking past him were - it was how calm he was. This kind of horror is normal here, I realized. Everyone thinks this is normal.
Living in Toronto, in the past year alone, one of my close friends began fighting their landlord due to an illegal eviction and another fell homeless for close to a year following a renoviction. This doesn't count friends who have also been evicted or pushed out of the city's core or out of the Greater Toronto Area altogether. And they are not all, as one might imagine, the most marginalized people in this city - some are white people from middle-class backgrounds, employed in full-time jobs requiring a university education. Displacement and illegal evictions are a new normal here: renters living in a free-floating fear that their home will be seized next while luxury condos blister the landscape and units, bought for investment purposes, sit empty. Despite being set in a different city, something about BTTM FDRS felt very familiar and mundane - and not nearly horrific enough to me. And that seems truly frightening.

Kawai Shen is a Canadian writer and cartoonist. You can find her at or on Twitter as @kawaishen.

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