The Uncomfortable Thoughts in Ed Piskor's Red Room #1

I don’t know how I feel about enjoying Ed Piskor’s Red Room as much as I do. The first time I read it, I felt queasy with Piskor’s attempts to be transgressive and edgy. He wants to create outlaw comics and it shows. His comic about torture porn and online snuff films certainly isn’t the feel-good comic of 2021 but it’s more than just an excuse to draw gore. The details of Piskor’s artwork, the visceral brutalization of men and women, is not a world that I could imagine wanting to spend a lot of time in. I’m still uneasy trying to describe in any kind of clarity the corrupted world that’s on display here. But is it possible that’s what Piskor is trying to achieve? It’s not like he’s in any way endorsing the clear disregard for human life and human dignity that his characters exhibit, right? So is he trying to make us question and explore what we’re seeing and our own reactions to it? Red Room #1 displays a violent and morally ugly world, providing a warped mirror of reality. But no matter how distorted it may be, it’s still a mirror, only reflecting back what’s already there. We may not want to acknowledge it but Piskor is not just creating a comic about murder-for-fun-and-bitcoin. While he may be taking it to an extreme, Red Room #1 is not disturbing only because of its images. It’s disturbing how easy it is to imagine that the Red Room exists and that we all are just steps away from being viewers or participants in it.

Or maybe it’s just trashy pulp that’s giving us an excuse to embrace a little bit of darkness in our lives.

And I don’t know if I’m comfortable with either of those possibilities.

Ed Piskor knows how to make comics. He’s studied them, reversed engineered them, and even remixed them. With Jim Rugg, he’s got a YouTube channel where he celebrates the best and the most cultish comics ever made. Red Room #1 is the result of all of that contemplation, submersion, and experimentation into Piskor’s own comic collection. Building the issue around a novella-sized story to introduce us to the concepts and players in this world, Piskor’s pages use almost every trick and technique that can be fit onto a comic’s page. His drawings and panel construction centers us into this paranoid world, where the laws of man have no real place other than being inconveniences to our entertainment and our commerce. He creates this paranoia through his drawings that owe much to Rob Liefeld, Dan Clowes, and old EC Comics.

The violence of the comic is almost comical. It’s so extreme that there’s no way we should take this seriously. One of Piskor’s greatest talents is his timing and his ability to punctuate each sequence with the takeaway moment from it. Whether we’re experiencing the emotional turmoil of a young girl who has lost both her mother and her sister, or an older woman who is trying to profit off of murder while minimalizing her family’s greater exposure to danger, Piskor makes sure that every sequence has an impact on his readers. If you go back to his Hip Hop Family Tree, a comic that was made up largely of vignettes and short stories, he crafted this skill there as he tried to entertain and connect the stories of the rappers. In Red Room, where he’s working on a much broader canvas, each scene needs to carry the momentum of the story. He does that by building up to some kind of punch line, whether it’s a funny one, a disgusting one, or even a revealing one. It’s this continual forward momentum that he drives that keeps you turning every page, even if you don’t want to see what kind of horror is waiting for you on the next one.

But with this first issue, it’s difficult to tell if there’s anything to this concept that’s worth pursuing on anything more than a surface-level understanding of the comic. The concept is some kind of earworm; once you hear it, it’s hard to imagine that something like this doesn’t exist in some dark corner of the internet. It’s a wonderfully put-together comic, shaping an air of mystery over this whole venture that makes it equally disturbing and alluring. Piskor draws this story with a nod and a wink at every turn, Every scene is so amped up and ridiculous that you can almost hear the cartoonist cackling to himself, “wait ‘til they get a load of this.” There’s an element of parody in this whole thing but there’s also the rebellious nature of the book; “Banned in 5 Countries” the cover declares but that’s more a goal for the book than a statement of fact. It feels like Piskor learned everything of marketing from Stan Lee and then twisted those lessons for his own outlaw dreams.

On the surface level, this book is everything it promises like “rivers of gore” and “illegal acts of carnography and degradation…” It is lurid in some twisted ways that I don’t know if we’ve experienced in a comic in a while (but probably I’m just reading the wrong (or maybe right) comics.) It’s a book that’s about killing for fun and for profit. But what becomes more interesting is the way that Piskor shapes this subculture around the Red Rooms. As well as the active stars and producers of this materials, there are also the anonymous chat-room fans of it, the people who are sharing live commentary on what they’re witnessing. You can easily imagine that for each video of torture and murder, there’s someone somewhere whose biggest joy is posting “FIRST!” in the comments.

If the characters we get to know through their actions are the movers and shakers of Piskor’s comics, the chat room fanatics are its Greek chorus, commenting as much about what is happening as they are for our own needs of amusement and entertainment. Hopefully, you’re not seeing yourself in any of these costumed killers but it’s hard to ignore the voice of the fans without seeing how they’re mimicking everyone who comments on Facebook or Twitter about everything from the latest real-world news to the up-to-date celebrity gossip. It’s impressive how Piskor posits not just the existence of the Red Room but also its own subculture that would spring up around it. In an essay at the back of the comic, Piskor says that while he can imagine something like this existing in real life, he has no first-hand knowledge of it. As far as he knows, this is something that just came up from his imagination. But this is also a guy who did an X-Men comic where he re-wrote some of the history of Marvel's mutants so you’ve got to know that the dude has dealt with a rabid fandom before.

So here I am, writing about Red Room #1 and writing a reaction to it, like the commentator of the Red Room videos- life imitating art which was imitating life. The comic provides such a visceral experience that it may be difficult to see it as anything other than a snuff comic and torture porn. Piskor gets a bit of pleasure playing with us that way, giving in to his twisted imagination and knowing that we’re on this ride with him. We may not want to acknowledge it but Piskor isn’t just creating a comic about murder as entertainment. While he may be going to an extreme, Red Room #1 isn’t disturbing only for its images of gore. It’s disturbing how easy it is to imagine that the Red Room actually does exist and that we, you and me, are just steps away from being viewers, participants, and fans of it.

Red Room #1
Written and Drawn by Ed Piskor
Published by Fantagraphics