Cynthia Von Buhler’s Illuminati Ball: Witnessed Live And On The Page
by Hannah Means Shannon
The Illuminati Ball is an immersive theater event created by Cynthia Von Buhler, and as with her previous theater event, Minky Woodcock: The Girl Who Handcuffed Houdini, the story has now been turned into a graphic novel published by Titan Comics. It landed in shops last week, launched at New York Comic Con, and at Von Buhler’s live event in Manhattan, a four hour extravaganza on Friday, October 4th. You may also know Von Buhler from wider events she’s hosted in the New York area through The Speakeasy Dollhouse (also the title of one of her previous books) and through her collaboration with Amanda Palmer on Evelyn, Evelyn, published by Dark Horse.
It’s my personal premise that whenever someone brings about an intersection between comics and other art forms, we ought to take notice. It creates interesting conversations, opens doors to new possibilities in the medium, and on the whole invigorates the field. Having a chance to both attend the live event and read the graphic novel only further cemented that assumption of mine. Plus, it was a wonderfully entertaining evening that made me think about the relationship between human beings and the natural world.
Though the event precedes the book (having launched at New Year’s Eve 2018), I’ll start with an introduction to it for those looking to pick it up in shops this week and beyond. Like Von Buhler’s previous books, it’s created in an almost art nouveau poster-style in terms of character design and layout, with each panel pretty much crafted as fully as a poster might be. Von Buhler is open about how painstaking this process is online, moving through production schedules in periods of seclusion in order to hit publishing deadlines. But it’s also a process she’s come to perfect, though in this case she met many more challenges in designing characters and settings for a rather imaginatively challenging work. The book is also lettered by the award-winning Aditya Bidikar, a perfect fit for an ambitious story.
In The Illuminati Ball, we meet five “candidates” from different walks of life who are invited to a mysterious event hosted by the mysterious “Pig King”, and they believe this call will help fulfill their desires in life for fame, power, etc. However, there’s a hidden agenda on the part of the “King”. The story is tied to the history of the real-world Illuminati, and to a ball held by the Baron de Rothschild in 1972, hosting Salvador Dali, Audrey Hepburn, and more notable and powerful people. The decorations for the ball were surreal (of course) and a little disturbing–with a human sacrifice “cake” and dolls with maimed features.
Was it all a joke, or was it a real ball for the Illuminati? Von Buhler plays on that question and goes far into the realm on animal-human hybrids, gene editing, and the (modern) tensions between humanity and the natural world. But the book also creates a great deal of sympathy for the human-animal hybrids who become major players in the plot, hybrids for whom reproduction is a heart-breaking problem. There is also the underlying possibility that solving the problem of a place in this world for hybrids might solve the bigger problems of human survival. I’ll leave plenty of the ideas in the book obscure so as not to dull its surprises for you, but like Von Buhler’s earlier books, she creates compelling characters, drama, and tension, though here I’d argue she goes even further into relationships and finds a very raw emotional heart to her story.
This is intentionally a boundary-pushing graphic novel, in its themes as well as its artwork, and I’d recommend it to anyone interested in biology-driven sci-fi, fantastic creatures, and conspiracy theories. It may not be for those who favor really traditional comics storytelling in panel and page layout, or those who don’t like body horror. But you still might want to have a look through it at a shop just to make sure–it is rather lavish and beautiful and that may win you over.
The live event in New York started with an admission process–you had to apply to be invited to the Illuminati Ball–to keep with the theme of being the guests at a secret organization’s event. I was even asked questions about my motivations in life, like the characters who we follow in the graphic novel.
Arriving almost a little late, I checked in at the impressively gothic and church-like structure in the lower East Side, and was quickly assigned my “color”, red. I was a member of the Baron Rothschild’s party. That was both interesting and perhaps a little worrying! I was given a choice of red masks, and ended up with an elaborate one. All guests had to remain masked during the event.
I entered the main hall, down the center of which was arranged a long, medieval-style table with red tablecloth, and a drama of initiation was already playing out. Obliged to wear a black blindfold, guests were urged to take part in a sacred oath, and given an item of food to eat afterwards, I suppose to seal the deal.
But before I went blindfolded, I caught a glimpse of the “Pig King” officiating, with his many-sided mask. He’d be a big focus of the evening throughout. Shortly afterwards, my friend and fellow comic creator Christa Cassano arrived and I filled her in on the event so far.
That was the pattern for the evening—dramatic incidents–heralded by a gong–that drew guests into a central chamber to follow the narrative of the play, followed by periods in which guests were encouraged to wander through staged rooms linked to the story at hand.
Not only were other guests dressed rather gorgeously–since costume was encouraged–but the actors and supporting staff wandered freely, adding to the ambience. Previous events I’ve been to hosted by Von Buhler were smaller and more intimate affairs, following actors through their sets, so to speak, but in this case the drama took place on a much larger scale with a wide range of guests. Both the venue, and setting up dramatic events in a central hall, made a lot of sense and helped keep the immersive event cohesive.
Wandering downstairs to explore the subterranean chambers, after picking up bespoke cocktails, we witnessed cow-human hybrids, mermaids, and more. The chambers in which a pig-human hybrid was clearly being raised were adorable, in an eerie way, but the vivisection/laboratory rooms were more disturbing…
[*Warning: There are some potentially upsetting images below of animals being subjected to lab research…]
There was also the more sinister implication that tampering with life leads to a lot of casual death, both in attempted offspring and in viable candidates.
Spot the mermaid above? Here’s our nursery below:
There was a fairly large central area to pick up drinks and chat (near the mermaid) as well as for photo ops. It encouraged guests to discuss the narrative they were part of, putting together the pieces and figuring things out in the same way guests at a mysterious ball would. They wouldn’t, after all, know the story’s over-arching narrative and outcome. It would be a process of gradual revelation.
My rather elaborate but animal-appropriate mask:
Christa Cassano with an aquatic backdrop:
We toured back through the laboratory for a few wider shots now that it was less crowded.
Coming up the staircase to the main level again, we came upon the book being launched. Each guest that evening took home a copy of the new tome.
Back in the main hall, some serious incidents and rituals played out, often punctuated by the performance of dancers who cat-walked along the main table (clearly reinforced for this purpose) and added to the sense that things weren’t going well for Rothschild and his goals. But could there be a reprieve?
Purged by fire, things seem to take on a more optimistic tone. Or at least one that might avert doom.
During a particularly significant scene, we were given hand-made chocolate hearts to eat to support the events we were witnessing.
Overall, the storytelling arc of the performances at the Illuminati Ball followed the pattern of a descent into the underworld with the potential for resurrection/redemption through sacrifice, with some more complex discussion in order to establish a degree of hope for the future. I think the gravitas which the performers brought to the event, and the sense of symbolic action they brought to bear, really conveyed this archetypal pattern well and left the guests with the sense that they’d witnessed something not only entertaining and strange, but potentially profound.
And that is what audiences have come to expect from Cynthia Von Buhler. While this subject matter feels more elaborate and “serious” than The Girl Who Handcuffed Houdini, that event made us care about Minky Woodcock and feel concern for her fate. The Illuminati Ball takes you inside a strange world of beings suffering due to the decisions of others and party to their fate as well. And if any narrative can make that human connection, then isn’t that the definition of success?
I’d highly recommend future stagings of The Illuminati Ball. Right now, Von Buhler has announced an “intimate” staging for New Year’s Eve 2019 happening outside of New York as an “Excursion” with a very limited number of guests, so check it out.
[*Note: The Illuminati Ball graphic novel and event contain nudity, body-horror, and violence, so are not suitable for younger audiences.]