My weekly dose of horror hasn’t been limited to these two books, but let’s say they fit into a certain category I’d call “occult horror”. Both Underwinter #1 by Ray Fawkes and She Wolf #7 by Rich Tommaso were released this week, so on a bright sunny morning I decided to read them back to back. In hindsight, maybe it was good to read them by daylight. They both have ideas that creep up on you.
Ray Fawkes has been bringing me horror for a number of years. One of my favorites written by Fawkes and illustrated by Ben Templesmith was Gotham by Midnight. In Underwinter, Fawkes returns to both writing and drawing a highly impressionistic work that focuses on a group of bitchy, dysfunctional, but highly skilled classical musicians who are conscripted (for a lot of money) to play at a mysterious mansion for a series of social gatherings.
The blindfolds, special clothes, and odd behavior should have tipped them off that something fairly creepy was going on, but in this modern gothic horror, Fawkes does a great job of sliding the psychology of his characters along a kind of continuum of accepting small aberrant details until they are buying into big, less palatable concessions. His art style helps with this–using chalky pastels, brushed surfaces, fading lines to suggest that kind of permeability in reality. It feels like a dark fairy tale, like a kind of more disturbing take on a Hansel and Gretel story–these musicians have definitely lost their way in the woods, and I don’t think they have the luxury of breadcrumbs to follow back.
Underwinter stands alongside great storytelling traditions like those in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown”, about a guy who encounters and deals with the Devil in the woods, where infernal elements walk alongside humanity and occasionally engage in ways that are too big and too different for human minds who encounter them to really comprehend. And, of course, that means people are in danger of destruction because of that encounter. But that makes for a fascinating and terrifying read. Fawkes is at a high poetic and artistic mark on Underwinter and it’ll cast a spell you want to follow further in to this strange tale.
Drastically different but sharing a borderland with the same traditions is Rich Tommaso’s She Wolf, a series which I keep fanning out over but find it impossible to stop talking about. It started its second arc recently, and now in the “Black Baptism” storyline, two narrative angles have come together in issue #7 to bring a modernish-set werewolf tale into a high dark fantasy world. The first She Wolf arc, now collected in a trade, features teenager Gabby and her violent, strange, and fascinating descent into becoming a she wolf (calling her a werewolf would actually be calling her a male wolf, linguistically speaking, so extra points for the title, Mr. Tommaso) and befriending a black magic witch.
In this second storyline, we are focused on Gabby’s younger and more reckless sister Lizzie, who at this point has been swallowed by a demon and taken into some netherworld reality. Gabby and witch Nikki follow to save her. So this story finally takes us fully into a strange underworld that aesthetically draws on tons of dark fantasy traditions–there’s armor, demons, demons in armor, castles, bats, and all manner of beasts battling for rule. Two wolf-women seem to keep this place under control and they become drawn into the plot to save Lizzie while dealing with their own issues.
But this installment of the story, given even greater creative wings by changing worlds, really shows off Tommaso’s exuberant art. If you like occult horror, you will no doubt feel the same intense satisfaction at the multiple Hieronymus Bosch references and influences you’ll find, as characters walk through a quaint hellish/Netherlandish village and sharp-limbed and bird-like demons consume the arms and legs of humans.
To pick only a few things about Rich Tommaso’s art style to praise in this issue, the panel design elements, where each panel is carefully crafted to toe the line between standalone art and sequential art, would definitely be one. Add to that the dynamic and interesting character designs throughout, including the ones introduced in this new world, and the madcap trajectory of his storytelling.
You never know what’s coming next in the kind of dream-logic of this narrative, and that makes for a continually surprising, and at times even humorous, read. This issue’s horror is a dense brew as you begin to realize that deeper realities continue to underline the world of She Wolf, and they follow their own rules, their own principles, and their own goals. You get the sense that Tommaso is discovering the possibilities of this comic as it develops, and it’s very exciting, as a reader, to charge along with him.
Underwinter and She Wolf are two great horror titles this week that are certainly worth your time, but with very different styles to choose from. The creative freedom inspired by the fact that these are both creator-owned books definitely shows and reminds me that this is a great time for horror comics to expand and reach new audiences.