Here’s a case of a comic turning out to be something quite different than what you thought it was. See, when I first heard about Wraith, I thought it was going to be Joe Hill’s follow-up to Locke & Key, a new original comic series in for an extended run. It was only in preparation for writing this review, with doing a little further reading, that I discovered Wraith is in fact an adaptation of a prose short story by Joe Hill, a prequel to a horror novel he wrote called NOS4A2, and that this run is only going to be a miniseries. This was a bit of a disappointment to me, as I read the actual comic comparing it to Locke & Key #1 and thinking of it as an introduction to a brand new comics universe. And it actually works incredibly well in that regard.
There’s something of a throwback quality to Wraith, with its lurid presentation and verbose panels, that puts me in mind of old horror comics of a bygone era. Not quite way back to Tales of the Crypt type stuff, but maybe more reminiscent of the early work of the likes of JM Dematteis or Stephen Bissette, in that it actually manages to be scary. It is difficult to make genuinely scary horror, especially a genuinely scary horror comic. But Joe Hill’s story manages to illicit some bona fide chills here, touching on some raw nerves that I find frightening in a story. For example, right from the very beginning the idea of child endangerment is brought into play, and more particularly the notion of a child being stolen and taken far away from home, with the possibility of return looking increasingly remote. And the story as a whole touches on an even more intimite, primal fear: the idea of an evil within, of something happening that makes you not you anymore, replacing you with something perverse and monstrous instead. Underneath the pop culture ubiquity that has gnawed away at their ability to frighten, it’s the core idea of what originally made vampires or zombies frightening. And it’s channelled to particularly unnerving effect here.
Our narrator and “protagonist” (if we can call him that) here is Charlie Manx, who we see at the beginning at his most monstrous. And from there we go back to get his “origin” story, to see how he ended up this way. It’s a narrative deftly weaved by Joe Hill, as Manx undeniably had a hard, difficult life, and Hill courts our sympathy just enough only to pull back and have Manx do something awful that reminds us of who we’re dealing with here. Manx’s personality shines through strong throughout this issue, with the narration of his backstory seeped with his voice, immersing us in the rhythm to the point where we can just imagine his hypnotic drawl in our heads, with a grating over-use of exclamation marks that suggests a false, heavy-handed cheerfulness that he likely imagines is charming while in fact it is creepy.
If there is any flaw in Wraith #1, it is perhaps that Hill luxuriates a little too much in Manx’s narrative voice. There are extended sequences of the book quite densely packed with narrative captions, so much so that Shawn Lee and Robbie Robbins’ lettering has to be shrunk down to eye-straining tininess to cram it all in. But in the long run this probably ends up being more of a blessing than a curse, as it makes this an unusually dense, detailed comics read. One might on average breeze through a comic in around 10-15 minutes. I spent a good half hour on my first reading of this, due to both the level of story packed into each page and the way I had to go back and reread sequences to see how shock revelations were set up earlier in the narrative. As I alluded to before, it makes this a highly immersive read.
But perhaps the true hero of Wraith: Welcome to Christmasland #1 is artist Charles Paul Wilson III. Best known as the artist of Stuff of Legend, and with a well-deserved reputation as one of the true gentlemen of comics, his work here could see Wilson enjoy a big boost in his profile. It feels different to anything he’s done before, with the graceful, storybook quality of Stuff of Legend replaced with rough, queasy linework. Jay Fotos’ washed-out color scheme enhances this sense of palor, with the combined effect being the aesthetic of a rotten, curdled world, one where nothing is quite as it should be. And some of the imagery Wilson crafts is pure nightmare fuel. A young Manx happily lying in his coffin bed next to a decaying corpse. The most terrifying snowmen since that shitty Michael Keaton, all gaping black-hole mouths in endless screams and grasping branch-arms that silently lurch forward in a manner reminiscent of the Doctor Who weeping angels. Manx himself, with his pasty-white skin, clawed fingernails and rotten teeth. And perhaps most horrifying of all, the sight of little girls with beady, soulless eyes and a shark’s mouth crammed full of pointed razor-teeth.
I think the reason I’m so disappointed about this being a short-lived miniseries rather than a new Locke & Key sized opus is because the world introduced here (to me, at least, for the first time) is so rich and packed with horrid detail that I want to spend a lot of time in it – even if I most definitely wouldn’t want to spend any time in Christmasland! At the very least, the excellence of Wraith: Welcome to Christmasland #1 makes me want to check out Joe Hill’s novel N0S4A2.