Is 2014 Comics’ Summer of Horror?

EmilyInterviewTeaserOver the past couple of months, it feels like I have been immersed in horror. Over the course of this month in particular, it’s starting to seem like my every spare moment has been dedicated to talking up my horror comic series, And Then Emily Was Gone. If you’ve somehow managed to avoid my social media PR onslaught, here’s the series synopsis:

Greg Hellinger is a man who sees monsters. Driven to the brink of madness by monstrous apparitions, he is tasked with finding a missing girl called Emily. Hellinger’s search takes him to a remote community in the Scottish Orkney Islands, where strange and terrifying things are happening…

Equal parts Twin Peaks, True Detective and The Wicker Man, with an atmospheric rural Scottish setting, And Then Emily Was Gone is a comic I’m really proud to have written, and artist Iain Laurie, colorist Megan Wilson and letterer Colin Bell have all done stellar work. The five-issue miniseries will be released monthly by ComixTribe, with the first issue hitting comic shops in July. That means this is the month it’s in the Diamond Previews catalogue available for order, and that’s left me thinking a lot about the marketability for this weird little book. From the early stages, there was concern that there might not be an audience in the comic market for this kind of morbid, gruesome story, that this might sit as something of an oddity among the more bombastic, action-orientated fare available in Previews. But recently, it’s started to occur to me that something dark is afoot in the comics world. Horror comics are on the rise, and now And Then Emily Was Gone is feeling less like a strange curio and more like a small part of a big movement.

EMILY 0108Just look at the new releases on the shelf of your local comic shop this week. Wednesday 7th May marked the launch of two new horror titles: Nailbiter and The Woods. Nailbiter is an Image Comics series from writer Joshua Williamson and artist Mike Henderson, about a small town in the American heartland that has been the birthplace of 16 prolific serial killers, and the disquieting secrets that town may hold. It was first announced at Image Expo in January, and did not seem like the most high-profile unveiling of that weekend. But over the past couple of months, I’ve watched buzz steadily built, first as people were floored by the blood-drenched preview art coming from Mike Henderson, then as the word-of-mouth started slipping out from those who’d read advance copies and were blown away. There was something palpable in the air that Nailbiter was going to be very special indeed, possibly the latest Image #1 to make a big splash. It says a lot that in the week that both Marvel and DC’s big crossover events of the year debuted – Original Sin and Future’s End respectively – the coverage and “book of the week” accolades going to Nailbiter threatened to upstage both of them. And having read the first issue myself, I can assure you it’s worthy of the hype. Mike Henderson’s moody artwork is a revelation, and while Joshua Williamson already turned heads last year with his impressive work on Ghosted, but Nailbiter sees him up his writing game once more. A single issue efficiently presents us with a well-realised world with intriguing/disturbing characters, and a steady accumulation of dread literally visualised on the page with a recurring THUMP-THUMP, THUMP-THUMP, THUMP-THUMP heartbeat growing ever more prevalent.

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But as impressive as Nailbiter was, in my humble opinion The Woods just about matched it step-for-step. From Boom! Studios – the latest addition to their slate of quality original content as they become ever more serious in emerging as a match for Image’s dominance of the creator-owned market – from writer James Tynion IV and artist Michael Dialynas, The Woods tells the story of a high school filled with pupils and staff which is suddenly and without explanation teleported to an alien world, at which point the people in the dramatically relocated building very quickly find themselves having to fight for their lives against monstrous alien beasts out to hunt them. The plot very quickly becomes gripping, and drew me in as a reader both in terms of the immediate tension presented in the high-stakes nature of the characters’ plight, and in a more overarching sense of thinking of the larger mystery behind how and why the school was brought to this world. But what really made The Woods stand out was the characters. Amongst the 513 people caught in this extra-terrestrial event, a small core ensemble of characters quickly emerge as figures to care about and get emotionally invested, already been drawn as real, likeable kids whose safety we are going to fear for. It’s very much cut from the same cloth as Manga horror classic Drifting Classroom, pushing the same buttons of intense claustrophobia, child endangerment and what sides of human nature will emerge out in the wilderness, but with enough of an American twist to give it its own identity.

TheWoods1So, two horror comics debut in the same week, both are quality books with buzz and critical acclaim behind them. What is it indicative of, if anything? It’s not like the comic medium is any stranger to horror. There’s in fact a rich history of horror comics. The biggest creator-owned comic in the industry today is The Walking Dead, ostensibly a horror comic, though I’d argue it’s evolved into more of a sweeping post-apocalyptic epic. And in recent years we’ve had our share of modern classics in the genre: Locke & Key, Severed, Echoes. But what stands out as different this year is the density with which these horror titles are hitting, and the splash they’re making. Nailbiter and The Woods both seem poised to go from strength to strength, but there are more debuts on the horizon. Spread, written by Justin Jordan and drawn by Kyle Strahm, is built around the delicious high-concept of “The Thing meets Lone Wolf and Cub,” and boasts some truly blood-curdling imagery. It caused a sensation at last year’s New York Comic Con, and now Image Comics have picked it up and have it slated for a July release. It got a major spotlight in this month’s Previews, and is already starting to build something of a social media steamroller behind it as that advance buzz brews. Watch this become one of the sleeper hits of the summer.

Spread1As the summer continues to roll on into August and beyond, some of the biggest names in comics will be getting in on the action. Writer Scott Snyder and artist Jock – the creative team behind one of the most celebrated Batman stories of the past decade, The Black Mirror – are reteaming for Image Comics to bring us Wytches. Now, Snyder is no stranger to the horror genre. One could argue he cut his teeth in the genre, with both his breakthrough Vertigo hit American Vampire (which since its Second Cycle relaunch has really seemed to bring the horror to the fore) and the aforementioned Severed. Even his mainstream DC work on the likes of Batman and Swamp Thing has had a fair share of horror elements injected into it, and The Wake was rich in horror trappings before morphing into an equally compelling but tonally distinct entity in its second half. So it makes a statement when Snyder talks about Wytches being the darkest and scariest he’s ever gone. This is something that’s quite fascinating for me, as horror is still something of a frontier in comics, and creators are still experimenting with how best to use the medium to scare the reader. Snyder has already been amongst the most successful, with Severed in particular making for harrowing reading, so when some of the best in the field are pushing at the forefront and striving to go further than they ever have, it suggests it’s an exciting time to be a fan of horror comics.

Wytches1Pushing the boundaries of what’s possible in a horror comic is also on the agenda for Nameless, another Image Comics offering. This also sees the reunion of the creative team of an acclaimed Batman run, this time Batman Inc, as artist Chris Burnham pairs up once more with writer and comics legend Grant Morrison. Details of this series have been sparse, and we don’t even have a concrete release date yet, but Burnham has talked about this being “the ultimate horror comic,” while Morrison has suggested that his ambition is to capture the zeitgeist and use Nameless to project a definitive statement about what frightens us on a primal level in modern society – “doing hopefully for now what H.P. Lovecraft did for the wartime generation,” as Morrison puts it – and considering that when Morrison set out to make the definitive statement on the superhero he gave us All Star Superman, we should all be very afraid at what he has in store for us with Nameless.

Nameless1But even with these big name talents with debuts lined up, there is one horror comic that I’m looking forward to more than any other. Ever since I first heard about it last year, there has been a graphic novel pencilled in as one of my premiere comic events of the year. The graphic novel I’m talking about is Through the Woods, by writer/artist Emily Carroll. When last I heard, it was set for a July release, but the marketing has been quite low-profile. But those who know about it are very excited about it indeed, as Emily Carroll is arguably the current master of the horror comic. His Face All Red is one of the single greatest horror stories to emerge from any medium in recent years. Like all the best horror, it stays with you long after you’ve finished reading, makes you think, makes you ask questions then leaves you troubled in the late hours by the implied answers. Her work has been a big inspiration to me in terms of opening my eyes to what kind of horror was possible in comic form. And up until now, her output has all been in the form of free webcomics. Through the Woods marks Emily Carroll’s first foray into the realm of print, with His Face All Red being collected with some new stories. Any horror fan should be marking this down as an essential purchase. In the grand picture of “the summer of horror” and the rise of horror in comics, Through the Woods could end up being the most important book of all.

ThroughTheWoods1There’s a quote from actor/writer Mark Gatiss I particularly like, spoken at the beginning of the BBC documentary series, A History of Horror:

The cinema is where we come to share a collective dream, and horror films are the most dreamlike of all, perhaps because they engage with our nightmares.

Just as horror films at their best have a unique power with the way they utilise the tools of that medium in the most visceral and potent of ways, I think that the comic medium has the same potential for engaging the senses. It’s a visual medium, and a well-crafted image can be seared on a reader’s psyche, yet despite the notable works in the field I feel like much of that potential remains untapped. Recently, I feel like horror cinema has lost much of its edge, and there haven’t been that many genuinely great horror films over the past several years. So, I talked about the frontier before, and I believe that more and more comics could become the proving ground where we go to scare ourselves in the most inventive and rewarding manner. For years I’ve felt like the horror market for comics could be huge, and this year it feels like we could be taking major steps in that direction. I don’t claim to be anywhere on the level of all these exciting works making their way to comic shops in the coming weeks and months, but if all the “summer of horror” does indeed prove to be a significant movement in the comics industry, I’m proud that And Then Emily Was Gone can be part of it.

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And Then Emily Was Gone #1 is released in July.  Pre-order your copy now, Previews order code MAY141251.  For more info, follow the Facebook page or check out the official blog.

Through the Woods is released in July.  Pre-order your copy now, Previews order code APR141272

Spread #1 is released in July.  Pre-order your copy now, Previews order code MAY140579

Wytches is released in August.  Nameless does not yet have a release date. 

Nailbiter #1 and The Woods #1 are available to buy now from all quality comic shops.

REVIEW: The Strange Talent of Luther Strode

I picked up The Strange Talent of Luther Strode in single issue format, and had a rather drawn-out experience with it.  I actually didn’t pick up the first issue right away.  I took a skim through it on the shelves when it was first released, and it looked interesting, but I told myself that I just couldn’t afford to pick up any new titles, and put it back on the shelf.  But a couple of weeks later, after hearing good things about that debut issue from people whose opinions I trust, I decided to give it a try.  Almost grudgingly, I liked that first issue.  Damn this title for actually being GOOD!  How dare it, when I’m on a budget!?  I was still on the fence about committing to the whole series, but after much hemming and hawing, I decided to at least try the next chapter.  By issue #2, I was hooked, and onboard until the end.  But perhaps there are readers out there who were like me, who were on the fence about sampling that first issue, but who made the choice to not pick up the title.  And now, like Abed’s “darkest timeline” in Community, that small divergence in path has made your life poorer and emptier.  But wait – there’s hope!  You can amend your grievous error, as a couple of weeks ago, the graphic novel of The Strange Talent of Luther Strode, collecting all 6 issues of the miniseries, went on sale.  If you didn’t give this gem of a comic a go then, you most definitely need to try it now.

The first thing that’s going to jump out at you is the dynamic artwork of Tradd Moore.  In an opening sequence with violence so extreme that it transcends upsetting and enters the realm of the absurd (note the guy whose kicked in the nuts so hard he explodes), Moore immediately captures our attention, delivering us a comic with visuals so assured and professional that it’s incredible to think of Moore as a relative newcomer to the field.  And this slick artwork is very much a trend throughout the book.  I’d say it’s reminiscent of John Romita Jr, in its stark, cartoonish style, but to compare the work to someone else does it a disservice, as Tradd Moore crafts a distinct style that’s very much his own, giving this world a clear aesthetic and tone.  One that writer Justin Jordan cleverly subverts, but we’ll get to that later.

Ably assisted by the bold pallette of colorist Felipe Sobreiro, Moore’s art pops from the page, giving the whole book a dynamic, exciting feel.  His versatility in shifting from slice of life, to gentle comedy, to deranged uber-violence shows some degree of skill.  I’m already excited to see more work from this emerging superstar artist.

But though the incredible artwork may be the most immediately visible asset that The Strange Talent of Luther Strode boasts, the most lasting impression could be left by the story crafted by writer Justin Jordan, another newcomer.  What Jordan does so well is that he doesn’t just sell the central concept and character incredibly well, he builds a whole world around it.  Incidental supporting players become vividly realised characters in their own right.  For example, we come to genuinely care about Luther’s friend Pete, who could easily have become the generic comedy sidekick in a lesser script, but who here shows added shades and dimensions to his character.  Really, the whole cast is likeable, or at least relatable, so when bad things start happening to them or they are put in peril, we are emotionally invested in the outcome rather than passively viewing it as obligatory plot development.

And this brings us to the unexpected dark turn The Strange Talent of Luther Strode takes in its final chapters.  Even with the crazy gore at the start, the tone of this is pitched as a caper.  It’s manic, it’s high-octane, and it’s very, very funny.  So when things turn very serious as the book races towards a conclusion, it comes as something of an emotional sucker-punch.  I don’t want to give it all away, and I’ve probably already said too much, but we reach a point where this stops becoming a blood-splattered twist on a superhero origin and changes into something more tragic and unsettling.  I’ve talked to some people who think of this as Jordan failing to stick the landing, stumbling at the third act and souring them as readers on the whole story as a result.  And yes, I can see this being a divisive ending.  But in my humble opinion, it’s this controversial, thought-provoking finale that elevates The Strange Talent of Luther Strode beyond just being another fun caper into something genuinely special, that will stick in your mind long after the thrill of the gruesome fight scenes has subsided.  It’s not for everyone, but it’s what makes the whole comic, in my opinion.  My advice for Jordan would be to not pay heed to the doubters, and be assured he made the right choice in not pulling any punches.

There have been quite a lot of comparisons made to Kick-Ass, and I can see why: the teenage hero, the play on superhero convention, the liberal dashings of violence and bad language.  But I’m going to go out on a limb and say that The Strange Talent of Luther Strode is better than Kick-Ass: more ambition, more style, and crucially, more heart.  Justin Jordan and Tradd Moore are both significant talents to watch.  I’m onboard for whatever collaborations they embark on in future.  And it seems like the first collaboration will be The Secret of Luther Strode, sequel to this first chapter.  I’ll tell you this: I won’t make the same mistake twice, I’ll be snatching up the first issue of that on the day it’s released.

The Strange Talent of Luther Strode is available now in all good comic stores.