[17 September 2012]
Familiar small-town paranoia and cryptic, supernatural themes are baked well into Revival, a horror/noir series that Image Comics launched in July of 2012. While the comics market is flush with story lines centered on unsettled dead folks, writer Tim Seeley’s Revival burrows deeply under your skin—even in its tranquil setting.
Seeley frames Revival in stark and snowy Wisconsin, where characters bump into the town drunkard weekly or encounter unnerving horror near mobile park homes and big, drafty barns. Panoramas of farmland and dead treetops are rimmed in frost in the book’s city of Wasau. On the road into town, dispirited college freshman Martha Cypress looks longingly over the bridge in the first issue, tracing ice chunks that drift past the cattails lining the river. Urban doomsday scenarios fit like a glove for novel adaptations like The Strain, for example, Guillermo del Toro’s vampire story set in sleek, modern-day Manhattan. For Revival, however, blood-streaked snow compounds the problem at hand with the sort of helplessness or feelings of isolation that winter temperatures can usually guarantee. After all, what might the best-known works of horror have been without the weight of winter?
The inclusion of a wintry, woodsy village can sometimes prove integral to yarns about the supernatural. Snowed-in homes and ice-locked land yield uneasiness and uncertainty, and within a memorable horror story, if low temperatures don’t bring death, they’re almost always the ideal setting for it. Fierce climes intensified already volatile situations throughout Greg Rucka’s thriller Whiteout in the comics realm, while worthy examples of ice-slicked horror in film, such as the gorgeous but menacing Let the Right One In from Sweden’s Tomas Alfredson, are plentiful. Consider the combination of supernatural mayhem and cabin fever (the latter, more so in the novel) in The Shining. In Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation of Stephen King’s book, nasty, impenetrable snowstorms are nearly as important to the narrative as the hotel’s apparitions. Elsewhere, the role of inclement weather in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is critical to its air of dread:
“Nature decayed all around me, and the sun became heatless; rain and snow poured around me; mighty rivers were frozen; the surface of the earth was hard and chill, and bare, and I found no shelter.”
Revival‘s dread (as well as its occasional chilling gore) is inked to wondrous effect by Mike Norton, but Seeley’s dialogue and relatable characters like single mother and police officer Dana Cypress present more of a draw than the blood and guts. For now at least, Norton and Seeley’s strong cast and well-paced pages hint at a provocative backstory: there was an “event” of some kind called “Revival Day” that left part of the town’s population trying to come to terms with a newfound immortality, and suffering various side effects in its wake, rapidly regenerating sets of teeth not excluded. Largely though, the “Revivers” seem to have far more in common emotionally with the regular townsfolk than what is expected of entries to the genre. Not unlike the sober and rather confused living dead in 2004’s They Came Back, a French drama about dead people who return from the grave with the intention of merely slipping back into society, those “affected” in Revival demonstrate an all-too-human sense of hopelessness or frustration, never again fitting into their lives in precisely the way they once had. In The Horror! The Horror!, comics scholar Jim Trobetta illustrates the aura of displacement that Tim Seeley casts in Revival:
“(W)hile the werewolf himself has forgotten something important, the living dead represent something that everybody else has forgotten. Their horror is not necessarily that they have returned, but rather who they turn out to be when they do show up.”
A few months before Revival hit the shelves, writer David Lapham introduced the excessively crimson Ferals (Avatar Press), an ongoing series set in a small Minnesota mountain community ravaged by werewolves. Like Seeley and Norton’s book, there are somber local cops and musty taverns with faux wood-paneled walls in Ferals, but Lapham’s work is mercilessly bloody. The town’s less-than-500 population grows smaller by two in the first issue of Ferals, with both losses owing to grisly attacks and dismemberment. Artist Gabriel Andrade’s wolf is all muscle. He stands maybe twice as tall as the story’s feeble humans, but against a pristine frozen landscape, Andrade’s mangy brown beast is positively enormous.
The first casualty in Ferals is a gutting that results in human innards strewn across most of a page. It goes down inside of and near a trailer parked in an area called “Black Mountain,” where a border of towering evergreens looms in the far background. White spruces that can reach heights of more than 100 feet are native to northern Minnesota, and both this early attack as well as the gruesome subsequent encounter toward the close of Lapham’s first issue are juxtaposed with a tranquil, lush forest. It’s a powerful contrast: Go ahead, cast your eyes just beyond that mangled corpse and bloodied snow. See? All is well.
Although it was collected and bound in April 2012, the seventh and final issue of Scott Snyder and Scott Tuft’s Severed (Image)—the frightening story of an early 1900s-era cannibalistic traveling salesman with an appetite for children—ran at the end of last year. By the time its final pages went to press, the snowy roads that led to where the story’s first murder took place were a distant memory. The often gorgeous backdrop for Severed #1, drawn by artist Attila Futaki, is hardly uncommon for stories of this type. It counters the primal horror at the center of Snyder and Tuft’s work.
Severed‘s suited stranger lures a little boy, Freddy, into his dingy, dark home in the book’s first issue, and things degenerate rapidly for the orphan from there. The drive out to Mr. Porter’s home (via the era’s Ford Model T), however, is easily as unnerving as the issue’s final pages. On these frosty back roads, ahead of any actual violence, Snyder and Tuft suggest that peril is a stone’s throw away. Porter is behind the wheel, explaining to a fresh-faced orphan the “fun” they’ll have, while talking partly in metaphor about the importance of hiding his “razor sharp teeth” to maintain the trustworthy facade that his trade requires. Out the window, the Chicago cityscape is far behind and is visible in but one panel. Where city streets and a sparkling but crowded skyline comprise the setting for murder and the macabre in The Strain, Severed‘s stage is an idyllic, snowy countryside that’s as inoffensive as a holiday greeting card.
Artist Bo Hampton uses an equally opaque and snow-blanketed Romania to frame the opening of Riven (Dark Horse), an unconventional late-August graphic novel that also unfolds around the uncertain future of an orphan named Kataya. After breaking from the confines of a dank and crude orphanage, the setting shifts to a Vermont suburb where it’s no less wintry. Familiar themes usually associated with chilly temperatures emerge at a moderate tick. Kataya struggles with loneliness and melancholy, and her experiences with pubescence are just as prevalent as the book’s core tale of supernatural horror.
Laid out in a marvelous wash of dark watercolors and ink, Riven offers a suspenseful 188 pages co-written by Hampton, who shares scripting duties with Robert Tinnell. The pair weaves modern-day flourishes into well-known werewolf lore here, sometimes simultaneously. Take the doctor who discusses a baffling condition affecting Kataya with her parents, examining cerebral episodes that the teenager appears to experience once monthly. This dialogue transpires inside “Coldwater Hospital,” which, in one of Hampton’s rich expository panels, looks far more like a castle on a Hammer Studios set than a medical facility at all. By the light of a full moon in Eastern Canada, there is a vicious attack on a German freight ship that appears to take place in another era entirely. Ghastly silhouettes stand watch in a snowy forest and an infrequent bloodletting is at hand, but the book’s tenuous personal relationships and atmosphere of mystery offer compelling support for the story of a werewolf’s sordid lineage. References to traditional horror dot Tinnell and Hampton’s telling of a young woman negotiating the road toward self-identity, and you almost want to tell her how cold the world is out there. But given the book’s frigid setting, it’s as if she already knows to expect the worst anyway.