Lately, I’ve found myself growing increasingly interested in horror comics. The massive success of The Walking Dead on TV has translated into the graphic novels topping bestseller lists and nudging their way into the mainstream. Those who have been reading my blog over the past couple of months will know that, for me, the standout titles of DC’s relaunch have been the horror/supernatural themed DC Dark titles, particularly the excellent Swamp Thing and Animal Man. American Vampire continues to be a consistently strong title (and now an Eisner award winner), while the deeply unsettling Severed stands out as one of the best new comics of the year, and in my opinion the best comic Image is currently producing. I recently wrote a glowing review for a creator-owned indy horror graphic novel called The Vessel of Terror, which you can read here. Comic Book Resources ran a great feature last month chronicling some of the scariest comics ever written, and giving me a checklist of books I now want to seek out. And on the creative end, writing a short for a horror anthology really got me into the notion of trying to write a longer piece within the horror genre.
Recently, DC has been running a series of interviews with various creators on their Source blog, talking about this recent rise in prominence of horror in the comics medium. They even coined a monkier for the trend: “the new horror.” I really do like the idea of all these individual elements coming together to form a larger pattern, with horror perhaps emerging as a new breakout genre in comics. And if this movement is looking for a standard bearer, a shining example of how comics can portray horror just as well as other mediums and be damn scary too, Echoes – the Image/Top Cow miniseries from writer Joshua Hale Fialkov and artist Rahsan Ekedal – would be a fine choice for that role indeed.
Echoes is the story of Brian Cohn, a loving husband and expectant father who is living with schizophrenia. On his deathbed, Brian’s father shares a horrifying confession about a life as a serial killer, and a horrifying secret hidden at an abandoned suburban home. “Dead girls…” the old man says in his final moments, “So many dead girls…” Things go from bad to worse, as Brian starts to question if he and his father share the same madness, and Brian’s carefully-maintained sense of normalcy gives way to an ongoing nightmare. But is everything truly as it seems?
Joshua Fialkov generates the scares in this tale by bringing everything close to home. The serial killer’s chamber of horrors isn’t in some dungeon in the middle of nowhere or a cabin in the woods – it’s nestled in the heart of suburbia, amidst family homes. The killers here aren’t monsters from hockey masks who emerge from the darkness, they’re our husbands, they’re our fathers. They’re us. And on this point, Fialkov makes the horror even more intimite. He realises that there is perhaps no place more frightening than the dark corners of our own minds, and with the condition plaguing our protagonist Brian, it doesn’t matter if its daytime, or if there are other people around: there is no safe haven. At any time, he could be confronted with a monstrous apparition, no less terrifying for only existing in his head.
With this idea of the “horror of the mind”, Echoes had a real Lynchian vibe for me, in particular reminding me of David Lynch’s underrated shudder-inducer Lost Highway. Like in that film, Echoes forces us into the mindset of an unstable protagonist, and the fear comes from viewing the world through their skewed perspective. Seemingly innocuous things, places and people all of a sudden take on an eerie, suspicious quality, and an indecipherable air of menace casts a pall over everything. I’m deliberately being vague about how the actual plot develops, as you really need to read it for yourself, but I hope I’m conveying the tone of that story in a way that makes you want to check it out.
One of the biggest strengths of Fialkov’s story is the character of Brian Cohn. A lot of the time, horror is about bad things happening to bad people, or at least stupid people, and so to some degree you feel like the victims almost have it coming to them, which can alienate you from their predicament. But with Brian, Fialkov crafts a fully-realised, likeable protagonist. In seeing how hard he struggles to overcome his disease, and the regiment of medications and therapy he has to go through, we really come to sympathise with him, and build an emotional investment in him getting through this ordeal unscathed. This, in turn, makes it all the more difficult to watch him get put through the wringer, and even worse when the narrative begins to suggest Brian might have some dark secrets of his own.
I greatly enjoyed Fialkov’s skillful work on Tumor, and I, Vampire was a standout amongst DC’s New 52, so I went into Echoes expecting the writing to be top notch, which it was. But what I wasn’t expecting was to be blown away by the art of one Rahsan Ekedal. I’d never seen Ekedal’s work before, so didn’t really have any expectations, but the first double-page spread was enough to instantly make me a fan. These become a recurring motif with each chapter: a double-page 32 panel grid capturing a dizzying range of snapshots from past, present and future, all tangentially related to the key dramatic moment, featured more prominently in a larger central box superimposed over all the other smaller panels. Each one of these tableaus is quite stunning, and a calling card for the unique aesthetic of the series.
What really makes his visuals so effective in enhancing the horror is that Ekedal takes the time to craft a palpable sense of the mundane. He gives his characters – with their hollowed-out, haunted faces – a tangible world to live in, with intricately detailed backgrounds creating a sense of the familiar, of the everyday. He could be drawing a slice-of-life comic. But with this familiarity carefully established, the steady insertion of the monstrous into this everyday world becomes all the more nightmarish.
As an example, take a look at Rahsan Ekedal’s art throughout the first chapter: a masterclass in escalating tension. Much of the craft here comes not just in his pencils, but in the way he makes use of inks and grayscale to manipulate light. So, we progress from a well-lit kitchen, to a dimly-lit basement, to the blackness of a hidden crawlspace, with only the light from Brian’s phone creating any visibility. It creates a real sense of tumbling down the rabbit hole, with the blackness slowly closing in all around us as Brian’s world gets darker and darker.
The lettering of Troy Peteri also merits commendation. When the alarm in Brian’s watch goes off, it indicates he is overdue his next dose of medication. As the plot develops, this quickly becomes a ticking time bomb, where we’re nervously awaiting the next inopportune moment when the alarm will go off and the madness will start creeping in. In turn, Peteri creates a distinctive, angular design for the alarm, and each time that distinctive BEEEEEEEEEP appears, Peteri’s work helps to actually slip a cinematic “jump cut” into a comic book!
In general, I think it’s very impressive and ambitious how the creative team of Echoes make use of sound in this silent medium. As the title Echoes might suggest, sounds and things heard play a very important role in the story, and these sounds are successfully evoked within the reader, and in turn we are further immersed in the drama of the story. What’s really admirable is that the creative team don’t just see horror as a label for subject matter: “if it has serial killers in it, we’ll call it a horror comic.” Instead, they’re willing to experiment and push the envelope, exploring the ways this medium in particular can be manipulated to genuinely scare us.
The collected edition of Echoes was recently released as a lovely, digest-sized hardcover graphic novel. It’s a wonderful format for the comic: it can sit on the shelf nicely next to the similarly-sized Tumor, and it stands apart from most other graphic novels on your bookshelf. Even in its design, Echoes seems to have more in common with a Junji Ito manga horror than an American creature feature. If you’re at all a fan of horror, this is a book that needs to be added to your collection. Joshua Hale Fialkov and Rahsan Ekedal both do stunning, star-making work here, resulting in what is one of the best comics of the year. Read it now before the inevitable film adaptation.
Echoes is now available to buy from Amazon.