How inured we are to the violence experienced by others is one of the great horrors of the modern age. The death threat, while neither a new nor novel concept, has only gained traction and insidiousness with the advent of the internet. An extreme end of the ubiquitous culture of cyber bullying and online harassment, it is yet another abuse to which we can become numb from the sheer glut of it. Many are pushed into a place of fear and shame by these attacks, meaning we don’t hear their stories until it’s too late. Some choose to share their experiences, but no one has ever done it quite like Vivek Shraya in Death Threat. A comic book with illustrations by Ness Lee, Death Threat follows Shraya’s receipt of transphobic hate emails, her attempts to process them, and her eventual decision to make them into art. In the process, we are invited to consider the possibility of truly eradicating such a threat from one’s life, or one’s psyche.
The fluidity of Lee’s illustrations lends a dreaminess to the dark subject matter. There is a mobility to her drawing that keeps the work in constant movement between soft and stormy, capturing the confusion with which Shraya struggles to make sense of the messages she receives. “Were you complimenting me?” she wonders at one point, parsing through the first email’s language, “Did you want me to hunt you down? Did you want me to come over for games night?” (13, 19, italics added). The line between fandom and hatred is a tenuous one; as we have seen time and time again, internalized hatred can lead to violence against those who we desire to be or be like. It is a self-hatred that lashes out on the bodies and minds of others, so often queer folks, more often queer people of colour. Simply building a career while being accessible online becomes unsafe territory. But after all, Shraya asks, “doesn’t being trolled on the internet go hand-in-hand with being feminine?” (44).
The threat-sender is a constant creeping presence, a black blur at the sidelines of Shraya’s thoughts and the comic’s panels, waiting to disrupt, unable to be fully dispelled. But in the midst of this darkness, Shraya finds buoyancy in humour. The depiction of internet trolls as troll dolls will now come to mind whenever I hear the term. Lee’s depictions of them is like the dolls themselves, simultaneously silly and creepy. There is Bonhomme in a “Make Vivek a Man Again” hat, sinister yet ridiculous. The vividness of these images takes us inside Shraya’s imagination as she envisions the absurd and terrifying ideas presented in the emails. Thankfully for Shraya and for us, art is a means of claiming this experience for herself. The comic quickly turns meta, as Shraya decides to create the very book we are reading, and we watch as she conceptualizes, collaborates, and eventually releases it. It is, as Lee laments, a “really fucking hard” project. But the artists build a friendship in the process, a saving grace in the face of the subject matter with which they’re dealing.
And so a comic about death threats turns into a comic about making a comic about death threats. What does it mean to turn that pain into something else, into art, into revenue? Can this provide an escape – a triumph over the threat and the one threatening? The answer it seems, is both yes and no. In the haunting images of the final panels, Shraya reveals a truth of the impact of these attacks – despite one’s ability to claim their own story in the face of violence, one cannot necessarily eradicate the resonance and reality of the threat and its impacts. In the face of reclamation, survival, resistance, it still haunts, still leers, still threatens.
Death Threat is available to pre-order now via Arsenal Pulp Press.