REVIEW: The Price

“What the #$%@ is going on here?!”

This is an exclamation made by Erin Wheeler, protagonist of The Price, in the wake of one particularly distressing encounter.  It might also be a question shared by the reader.  This latest offering from publisher 215 Ink, written by Glenn Arseneau and drawn by Allen Byrns, is very reminiscent of the works of David Lynch, not just in its eerie, dreamlike atmosphere, but in its refusal to spoonfeed us with clear answers as to what exactly is going on.  The Lynch comparison is perhaps appropriate, given that The Price takes place across its own stretch of “lost highway”, and much like Lynch’s brilliantly baffling neo-noir, here the dark, barren stretches of road serve as a symbolic backdrop to a crisis of identity.

I think the overarching theme of my reaction to The Price is being turned off as an initial knee-jerk response, but really coming to appreciate the craft involved upon closer inspection.  In terms of Byrns’ artwork, I initially found it quite jarring and distracting.  The backgrounds and locations evoke the grubby, hyper-real stylings of Ben Templesmith, but the actual characters are very sketched-out and cartoony.  Adding to this feeling of inconsistency was the strangely realistic and textured noses occasionally put on these simplistic figures.  But when revisiting these images and taking a closer look, I realised that those “photo-realistic” noses were actual photographed noses superimposed over the drawings, which helped me to realise that the jarring, alienating effect created by the art was very much deliberate.

Throughout the graphic novel, Byrns engages in some very experimental art techniques to enhance the ethereal, dreamlike atmosphere of the story.  In an early sequence in a seedy bar, it appears the panels have actually been drawn on a wrinky paper bag to enhance the dirty vibe.  Elsewhere, effects such as blurring or a faint superimposing of images are also used to create a more immersive, surreal experience.  One particular diner-set scene later on in the book is a standout, using a mash-up of these visual tricks to evoke a nightmarish effect.  So, while it may not be an art style for everyone, I really came to appreciate Allen Byrns’ contribution to The Price, making it a comic unlike anything else I’ve read.

Similarly, I found myself put off by Arseneau’s writing initially.  Upon first reading, it felt like we had a strong opening laced with tension, but then everything began to fall apart as twists and revelations were clumsily stacked on top of one another.  And even upon repeat reading I still have some issues with the pacing of the story – for example, in the sequence where she is riding in a truck with the enigmatic Marcus Curry, Erin seems to go very quickly from being shocked and in hysterics to being the career-driven woman fretting over missing an important meeting.  And after a tantalising slow boil and a steady escalation of gnawing dread, the actual conclusion feels disappointingly rushed and perfunctory.

But again, upon closer inspection, what initially seemed haphazard is in fact quite carefully constructed, with the seeds sown for the impending strangeness even in the earlier sequences, and plenty of foreshadowing subtly hidden within the art.  And when things might not be clear in a literal sense, the drama is still carried along with a kind of dream logic (Lynch again) where an emotional resonance carries us through.  It’s hard to talk about Arseneau’s storytelling in any real detail in a review without getting into plot spoilers, but I will say that it’s a story that is open to interpretation, and can be read in different ways.  It’s not an easy read, and it times it’s a bit cluttered, but Arseneau is working with some big ideas here, and has an ambition with his storytelling that’s really admirable.

The Price is an unusual mystery/horror whose innovative, off-kilter approach to art and story are both its biggest strength and setback.  It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but I think those who do like it are going to like it a lot.  Both Glenn Arseneau and Allen Byrns are talented, creative folk who I will be watching with interest.  Check out The Price if you’re up for something a little different from the usual comic fare.

The Price is available to buy from Graphicly.

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