Last Sunday, I had what was essentially the perfect day: my best friend was in town, and we got sushi and slammed some Pioneer (Greasefang versus Cat/Oven) before hanging out in the pool all evening, tossing a Frisbee and cracking hop waters until twilight drove us out at nine o’clock. I was full of the sort of washed-out serenity you get when you hang out in the sun and devour watermelon in the shallow end, so we decided to pop on Phil Tippett’s Mad God, a stop-motion film on Shudder that’s been in the works in some capacity since the early nineties.

Tippett, a legend of the art form who worked on Return of the Jedi, Jurassic Park, Robocop, and Starship Troopers, raised funds for the film in Kickstarter back in 2012 and worked on this final iteration of the idea for a solid five years. It shows: every single frame, every new level of necrosystem, every squelching, belching creature has been carefully crafted for maximum impact. It’s pure surrealism, and not in the defanged sense of “something incongruous in a familiar environment,” but in the sense of dissolving meaning and structure in service of scrutinizing why we create meaning and structure.

When I was a child, I wanted to be a stop-motion artist—I begged my parents for a camera, armature models, polymer clay. I pored over books about ILM—where I first read Tippett’s name—and sketched out monsters I wanted to create in clay and eventual Harryhausen quasi-life. Turns out stop-motion is absurdly exacting and difficult, and so I, being a child, gave it up very quickly and moved on to consuming surrealist and stop-motion art, rather than creating it.

Tippett is a self-avowed misanthrope, and that also carries through in his film: every figure in the film is disposable, faceless, often brutally, casually disposed of by some passing monstrosity or piece of machinery. The cruelty of the world of Mad God broke me pretty quickly. I’ve noticed that, since the pandemic and some recent personal traumas, I’ve become very sensitive to mass death and body horror, so the gory entertainment I used to glory in hits harder, has a more physical impact on me. I wasn’t able to finish Mad God in one sitting, which is to say: I can’t recommend it highly enough. Its vibes are so rancid and its vision so uncompromising that it feels like you’re getting away with something by watching it—like it’s indicting you, justifiably, for being complicit in the crime of human society.

Mad God’s structure is one of the most sacred in Western art: it’s Dante’s Inferno—a doomed figure descending deeper and deeper into a hellish situation and gawking at the carnage. Mad God’s hellish world is an update of Dante that’s closer to splatterpunk than the body horror of Christian imagination. In Dante’s reckoning, the circles of Hell were:

Limbo—not a place of punishment, but a pocket doldrums where Dante consigned the folks like the pre-Christian Greek philosophers that he felt guilty about sending to Hell, the so-called “virtuous pagans.” I like to imagine it’s full of chill cavemen.

Lust—the souls of the lustful, which is a broad category in the Florentine’s imagination, are constantly blown about by a tempest. Getting off pretty light, as the Inferno goes, but considering Dante was kind of a horny dude himself, he may be setting himself up for a light sentence.

Gluttony—the gluttonous wallow in an icy slush of filth, being periodically harrowed by Cerberus.

Greed—Unlike the previous two circles, which punish overindulgence, those suffering in this circle include both the parsimonious and the spendthrift, carrying around bags of coins, Marley-esque.

Wrath—in a foul marsh, the wrathful whale on each other in eternity. This one always seemed a bit more like a reward for the violent than anything—an eternal mud wrestling grudge match.

Heresy—In this circle, those who held ideas the Catholic Church consider heterodox are pinned upside-down in leaden tombs with flames tickling their feet.

Violence—Murderers boil in a river of blood, while the suicidal, transformed into trees capable of speech, but only when bleeding, line the banks of the river. Those who committed violence against God are stretched out a burning desert—this is all basic Christian stuff, although the trees of the suicides are a creative and evocative concept.

Fraud—a huge chunk of the text is spent on this circle, which encompasses a variety of crimes and a variety of punishments: submerged in boiling feces, getting whipped and mutilated by a bunch of demons, etc.

Treachery—a frozen lake on the outskirts of the Hellish city of Dis, where those who have betrayed their country, family, and lovers are partially submerged in the ice. In the center of the lake is Satan, gnawing on Judas Iscariot in one of his three mouths.

Someone in Magic Creative circa 1998 was a Classics major, as Magic’s Phyrexia—that is, the artificial plane eventually presided over by Yawgmoth—is also modeled on Dante’s Nine Circles, only one-upped into the third dimension as Spheres. Phyrexia’s Nine Spheres are:

First Sphere—a biomechanical ecosystem of predators under a sullen sky, where greasy rain falls and Phyrexian oil flows like water.

Second Sphere—an industrial wasteland where smokestacks from below belch smog and detritus from the First Sphere above falls.

Third Sphere—a hellscape of pipes stalked by horrors (Looming Shade). The Shade was some formative art for a young Rob—the juxtaposition of a traditional fantasy skeleton within an industrialized setting opened up new connections for what horror could look like. Same deal with Unworthy Dead—Magic art never was more stately and macabre than in Urza’s block’s depiction of Phyrexia.

Fourth Sphere—the bio-engineering side of Phyrexia, here’s where vat priests oversee Mimic Vats and Processors and portals and all the interlinked technology that births Phyrexia’s parody of life and seeds it through the multiverse.

Fifth Sphere—a boiling ocean of glistening oil harvested by those in the Fourth Sphere. Really starting to see the Dante parallels here.

Sixth Sphere—Phyrexian Washington, basically, where Yawgmoth’s trusted advisors schemed.

Seventh Sphere—a massive furnace where metal is smelted and interlopers are punished.

Eighth Sphere—quoting here from the fandom Wiki, “The Eighth Sphere is a place of pure energy. Little else is known of it.” Fair enough!

Ninth Sphere—Yawgmoth’s sanctum and presumably the site of the Phyrexian Arena where Urza and Gerrard did battle for his amusement.

In its combination of punishment and Byzantine politics, Phyrexia mirrors the Inferno in more than just structure. Dante lingers over the torture and brutality of Hell because we love to torment ourselves with images of others in pain. We’re both terrified and empathic, and that’s a dangerous combination. We’re fascinated by what scares us, of course, because it’s an easy way to microdose the reality of our deaths. True crime, body horror, cosmic horror—these are all safe and productive ways to gradually chill the ego and accept the vastness of life, the implacability of our death, and the scale of human society (let alone the size of the universe).

Magic art is static, and as such, it can only depict a single frame, which can either defuse the horror or perpetuate it. This is good and healthy: it means we can revisit the things that scare us whenever we’re able. The menace of Village Cannibals, that single frozen moment of fear and awareness, will never diminish, no matter how many times you revisit the card. The couple on Macabre Waltz (Dissension) will be locked into their sanguine dance forever.

Magic art has moved away from the peak of Nineties ghoulishness. Gone are the days of truly wonderful little freaks like Necrite and Morgue Thrull and Phyrexian Monitor or the demonic ominousness of The Wretched and The Fallen—but there are still moments of horror frozen forever in paint and pixels. With our return to old Phyrexia imminent in The Brothers’ War and our next trip to New Phyrexia somewhere in the near future, we’ll have ample opportunities to take a sojourn to hell and ampler opportunities to look at the hideous denizens as they savage and devour each other, each created through the hard work and meticulous practice of artists. What a blessing it is, to be surrounded by such monsters.

A lifelong resident of the Carolinas and a graduate of the University of North Carolina, Rob has played Magic since he picked a Darkling Stalker up off the soccer field at summer camp. He works for nonprofits as an educational strategies developer and, in his off-hours, enjoys writing fiction, playing games, and exploring new beers.

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