You can close your eyes when scary stuff comes on screen — killer birds flocking at Tippi Hedren; the relentless Borg abducting Captain Picard; dinosaurs running amuck in the twentieth Jurassic Park movie. But it’s far harder to shut out quiet atmospheric terror, the moments when you can’t see anything scary at all, because that means all the scary things have found an effective place to hide.
I have a crystal-clear memory of a movie that I saw when I was about five years old: A kid comes home from school to find his home empty, though he was expecting his parents to be there. He calls out for them — nothing. Silence. Standing at the foot of the stairs, he’s startled by a thud, and then a basketball rolls down the steps, bouncing a few times and then eerily coming to a stop at his feet. He looks up the stairs, but because he’s young, his point of view is low; he can only see them rising up above him, and he can’t see what’s at the top.
The entire scene lasted about 10 seconds before I knew I had to change the channel, but the damage was done — staircases had been added to the list of everyday things that frightened me, joining washing machines, carbonated drinks, and having my picture taken. I was not afraid of obliviously crossing the street or wandering away from home at a stranger’s invitation, two things that actually almost killed me around that age. It was the silent unknown of a staircase, the dark eye of a camera, and the inner churning mechanisms of major appliances that kept me awake at night.
There are three unsettling comic books coming out this week, each with a different approach to deploying the unseen in order to terrify. The most effective hides everything; the least effective shows its entire hand, revealing itself to be a bluff. Thanks as always to Phoenix Comics for helping to navigate the week’s new releases, and please tell me if you know what was at the top of those stairs.
10 YEARS TO DEATH
A pitch-perfect scary-campfire story to kickstart your Halloween season, Ten Years to Death shows no violence, gore, jump scares, or monsters, but provokes goosebumps from beginning to end. It’s a real testament to the power of a well-told spook-story, in which atmosphere and excellent writing prove far more effective than cheap shocks. In this one-shot story, a shaken prison guard returns home from work and shares a deep dark secret with his nephew, the story of a harrowing encounter with a coworker who has a strange power to unsettle even the most aggressive inmate. Like the best creepy Hitchcock, Poe, or Stephen King stories, the spooky bits seem unremarkable on a superficial level, but tension blossoms in quiet moments and anxious glances: Oh, the central figure is a dude who just kinda stands there and looks at people? Yeah, sure, and Psycho is just a movie about taking a shower. Also worth mentioning is the book's particularly generous production values, including nicely oversized pages and a perfect-bound spine.
Rating: 🔫🔫🔫🔫🔫 (5/5)
Writer: Aaron Douglas. Artist: Cliff Richards. Colorist: Guy Major. Cover: Cliff Richards. Alt Cover: Michael Gaydos.
STRANGER THINGS: TOMB OF YBWEN ISSUE #1
Stranger Things is the vegan bacon of TV shows: a product that goes fruitlessly out of its way in an attempt to reproduce an experience that no lab-grown imitation can improve. But while I found the show to be a series of references to more enjoyable movies that I could be watching instead, the comic book adaptations have taken a far more creative approach. Rather than functioning as a sort of nostalgia delivery system, they embark on — get this — original adventures. The new series Tomb of Ybwen uses the show as a jumping-off point for a thoughtful story about how personal regrets can mutate into anger, set against a backdrop of boys struggling to hang onto bonds of friendship that are strained by passage through early teen years. The premise: Will stumbles across what looks like a treasure map, an artifact left behind by someone he cared for who is now gone. He believes that it leads to treasure, but his emotional attachment to a moldering piece of paper suggests that he’s fixated more on a lost relationship with its creator. A reader who has avoided the show will be able to follow the story, more or less; but it’s clear that you’re expected to come to the book having caught up on the TV series. That’s a shame, because this story could easily have stood on its own strengths. If anything, the book’s reliance on the audience’s existing fandom holds it back — the same weakness that made the show such a wasted opportunity.
Rating: 🗺️🗺️🗺️🗺️ (4/5)
Writer: Greg Pak. Artist: Diego Galindo. Letterer: Nate Piekos. Colorist: Francesco Segala. Cover Artist: Marc Aspinall.
CHILDREN OF THE PLAGUE
It’s the future, and the Earth has been transformed by an invasion of alien monsters and by body-altering nanotechnology. Two twins, separated in childhood, have been transformed into fighters — as monstrous as the creatures they’ve been assigned to combat. It’s a neat idea, but it’s explained more than explored. Characters speak largely in monologue, first at the reader and then at each other, often repeating themselves; there were multiple pages on which I got the distinct impression that I wasn’t reading a comic book so much as an illustrated pitch. And while the action is plentiful, it too is repetitive — page after page of samey punching. Take out half the panels in this one-shot and I’m not sure you’d lose much. I’m reminded of the approach taken by Howard Ashman, the producer and songwriter behind The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast and Little Shop of Horrors; he believed that every song in a musical should advance the plot, rather than musicalizing what the audience already knows. I also found my mind wandering to masters of action sequences like Jackie Chan and Cynthia Rothrock, whose gorgeous balletic fights are as much about the characters fighting as the conflict itself. Children of the Plague has action and color and monsters and gore, but if there’s a reason for the characters to be invested in their circumstances beyond “I need to survive,” I couldn’t find it. Most mystifying of all: The book seems to be setting up a larger story, but it’s a one-shot. Seldom have I had a more “that’s it?” reaction to reaching a final page.
Rating: 👽👽 (2/5)
Writer and artist: Robert Love. Letterer: David Walker. Colorist: Jeffrey Kimbler.
ALSO: BEAST BOY IN LOVE, A WEDDING SLAUGHTER, and ASIAN NOIR
Also worth your attention this week is Beast Boy Loves Raven, an absolutely adorable teen adventure jam-packed with fantastic writing and chemistry between our leads. I would have loved to give this book five stars, if only Marvel wasn’t so peculiar about withholding review copies. Also: Human Remains, in which a grotesque eldritch invasion splatters gore across every page; and Party and Prey is a violent gay murder-thriller that indicts the ease with which rich white gays can get away with … well, you know. Three great trade paperbacks are out this week as well: Haha, a dark nihilist clown story; The Good Asian, a gorgeous noir; and Brzrkr, a story of a barbarian working for the U.S. government — written by Keanu Reeves???? Yup, that’s what the press material says. Huh.