Since it’s announcement by Boom! Studios, I’ve been interested in reading Cullen Bunn and Jack T. Cole’s new horror series The Unsound, and this week the first issue arrived to start to satisfy my curiosity. I say “start to” because like many horror stories, it contains elements of mystery and the build up and pacing of horror requires a gradual reveal in certain stages.
This helps create a sense of ascent or descent, into terrible enlightenment or deep revelations, depending on the tone of the work. In The Unsound, revelations are gradual, and though there’s going to be a physical descent happening in the series, it may well be one of those books that thrives on unleashing “terrible enlightenment”, if I had to place a bet now.
Newcomer Ashli Granger is starting her first day at work in a mental asylum and Cole’s almost whimsical art style, that focuses on the tone and accumulation of detail in daily life scenes in his opening panels, may distract you from the fact that this is a horror book. The disarming fonts by letterer Jim Campbell have a similar effect. Those same qualities in Cole’s art work later render uncanny things very uncanny. The kind of fine line between realism and imagined or real horror in the Saint Cascia mental hospital reminds me a little bit of True Detective Season One–whether horror is “real” or psychological becomes a moot point in this comic because we, the readers, experience it either way.
Ashli seems like a point of sweetness and light wandering into the strangely chaotic world of the hospital, meeting blunt and overworked Nurse Jeffers, an inmate who tries to befriend her as “sane”, and circling the hovering dark-suited “administration” team who is assessing the hospital on Ashli’s first day on the job. But meanwhile, of course, those little details so artfully rendered by Cole are burrowing into the reader’s mind, and Ashli’s, too. There are razor blades lying around, seemingly at random, imagined voices telling Ashli about an infernal “Prince” who is waiting to meet her, and a recurring prediction that she’ll wear a “red gown”.
Cullen Bunn, who writes great horror as well as satisfying journeys for his characters, is using some universal imagery here in the language we’re encountering–hell, the abyss, the underworld, and the like. Madness could, too, be conceived of as a kind of descent into a place below, as in the literary phrase we use frequently “descent into madness”. And so this hospital begins to feel like a staging ground for that descent–a kind of purgatorial platform which can only lead down.
The promo information for this series hints that there will be a physical descent for Ashli into what is perceived as a “real” underworld. But already the seeds are sown for us, the reader, to doubt Ashli’s soundness of mind. That could make her an unreliable POV character. Ashli is a new person in a new place, like the reader, and so she’s our guide into Saint Cascia and its tough, dark environment, but does that mean she’s as “sound” as we are? We shouldn’t be so sure–and that makes for a good horror story. She’s unreliable in the sense that all characters in a horror story are–the changes and turns in our perceptions as readers will make for the suspense of this tale.
As an introduction to a new series, The Unsound #1 really pulls out all the stops. Many series would spend a couple of issues on the material delivered here in a single first issue, but I think that’s a wise move. It establishes the world of the comic, and it also conveys to the reader a certain directness about what to expect in tone–this is a series that is going to be visceral, challenging, spooky, and unpredictable. And now that we’re checked in at Saint Cascia, whether to work or as inmates ourselves, there doesn’t feel like there’s a way out. Not one that you’re inclined to take right away, anyway.
Bunn and Cole have created a strong opening to the series with a unique mood and enigmatic tone which should make for a solid and satisfying read for The Unsound.
The Unsound #1 arrived in shops today, Wednesday, June 7th. Issue #2 arrives July 5th, 2017.