I was drawn to Evolution when it released last November. How could I not be? A great horror book, even a potentially great horror book, is not something to be missed. It beckoned me with its mysterious treatment and promises of smart body horror. But even more so, there was the talent attached.
I don’t remember the last time I’ve seen a book, especially a creator owned book, written by a committee of writers, but the lineup is certainly impressive. With Joshua Williamson (Nailbiter, Birthright, The Flash), Joe Keatinge (Shutter, Glory), Christopher Sebela (Injustice: Ground Zero, Captain Marvel, Blue Beetle), and James Asmus (Thief of Thieves, Gambit, Kong of Skull Island) all at the helm, it was hard not to be curious. A little research has since revealed that the writers worked on each story separately, but there’s a different intrigue about that arrangement, effectively offering three takes on the same comic.
The concept of Evolution is quite simple, just as humanity has sped up its technological evolution, some monstrous infection has increased the rate of its biological evolution, growing to pandemic levels. The infection is not only virulent but sentient and parasitic. As Doctor Hurley races to uncover the conspiracy and eliminate the disease, Sister Hannah travels Europe hoping to determine how the symptoms she’s seen fit into God’s plan. And, in California, Claire and Rochelle find themselves entangled with a reclusive billionaire who seems tied to the cult that’s unleashed and perhaps supported this apocalyptic affliction.
Despite the appeal of the first issue, I decided to wait on Evolution until the trade was released and, despite wanting to support the series, I’m pretty glad I did. Though the character work is gripping, Evolution is a ticking, cinematic experience. This is most apparent in the California plot, where Claire realistically agonizes over a central decision for most of the trade before her story can really begin. This thread is also interesting for the differences between it and its fellows. Where Dr. Hurley’s plot explores a large-scale conspiracy medical drama and Sister Hannah’s focuses on the personal, seemingly supernatural experiences of one woman, Claire and Rochelle’s arc has no view on the infection, because they’re barely aware of it. Instead they willfully turn their eyes away, dealing with a story about power in Hollywood and secrets within a relationship. Keatinge does a good job of endearing the duo to readers while also building believable cracks into their relationship and manages to make Hurwitz’s care for Claire feel genuine, but not without its menace.
Sebela handles Dr. Hurley’s case. This is very much the headliner story, the one visionary who can see what’s coming. Interestingly, there’s not a lot of emphasis put on the good doctor’s research. He knows enough, he seems to insist, it’s just about proving his findings to others. Here we get to know the Bug best, seeing exactly how it hides and how it manifests and it’s honestly pretty terrifying. Sebela knows the value of the horrific, offering frequent glimpses of the sheer metamorphic power that the Infection possesses, but it’s the casual appearances that truly linger with the reader. Fingers that bend the wrong way or eyes that don’t focus right. The fear of being crazy, the fear of just going along.
And that’s really what’s most exciting about this third of the book. Though it isn’t entirely apparent at first, Dr. Hurley’s final monologue hammers home what other kinds of evolution can kill a species. All throughout, Sebela plays the doc just right to make you not only sympathize with those who disbelieve him, but to put the nagging fear into your mind that Hurley is not who he thinks he is. Despite his place at center stage and the years of tropes and baggage accumulated around discredited white men who just need to push through, there will be moments where even the presence of other perspectives will not validate his role as the lead hero. Is he crazy, has he been pushed too far, was he a villain all along, or have you just sided against humanity with your skepticism?
Of the three stories, Asmus and Williams’ look at Sister Hannah is probably my favorite. Sister Hannah’s story simultaneously puts readers in the position of greatest weakness and firmest confidence. Where Hurley and Claire have their own ways of understanding what’s going on, Hannah is truly thrown into this mystery, and discovering its twists and turns with her is effective. Before long we’re also taken out of Hurley’s all-too-convenient world of safety as the Infection grows within one of our viewpoint characters. From the political machinations of a Catholic hospital to the underbelly of Rome to remote German towns and mysterious medical conspiracies, it’s definitely the most wide-ranging of the stories, avoiding some of the repetitious elements of the other stories, and it introduces the best supporting character in the form of Juan.
In fact, it’s interesting to note that, besides the four protagonists, there are very few characters. Instead the book is deeply focused on the tension and charisma of its leads. Well, that and the charisma of its art.
Joe Infurnari and Jordan Boyd make this a truly beautiful book. The harsh, carefully hatched lines create a distinctive and haunting look for the series that conjures up ideas of gritty realism while utilizing the benefits of simple, stylized cartooning. At times panels can get a little busy and some of the grotesquerie of the infected can be lost in the chaos, but the results are undeniably beautiful, deceptively real, and impressively malleable.
This is also a book where color is a central part of the visual language. Jordan Boyd gifts a striking appearance to every page, giving the book an eerie glow, like a monochrome story told in the glow of a computer monitor at midnight. The vibrancy of the colors is a refreshing complement to the infringing darkness of the hatched shading and the apocalyptic tone of the writing.
What’s more, the use of color-based motifs is excellent. Doctor Hurley’s unearthly blue clashes fiercely with the Bug’s vicious red, while Sister Hannah’s pastoral, almost sepia amber fades into it, hinting at her own infection. Perhaps the most brilliant use is between Claire and Rochelle, where giving each of them their own color represents the ups and downs of their relationship and calls into question whose story this is. Nevermind doing this while playing into the retro-seventies grindhouse aesthetic that Keatinge has clearly built into the narrative!
Of course, Evolution is aware that its vision of the titular concept is unbelievable. What sets it apart is the degree to which it knows that you’ll believe the unbelievable if it tells you so with a veneer of truth and some real fear in its eyes.
It manages to say something and deliver some solid body horror beats without being off-putting by separating the gruesome ideas from reality while keeping its personal tales pressed up against the fourth wall, raw and highly relatable. Though the art might unsettle and those with a distaste for body horror won’t find themselves cured by the approach, I found Evolution an accessible horror story that kept me thinking without keeping me up at night.
I’ll also say that its interesting that Evolution’s first collection doesn’t mark chapter breaks, letting each issue’s end feel like merely another scene change. I’m not certain that I like this; it feels like it stretches out a book that’s already rendered claustrophobic by how high its narrative looms over the reader. However, it also feels like confirmation that this is how the story wants to be consumed, a tense thriller that depends on the unknown to drive the story forward.With its palpable tension and bold coloring but creeping pace, Evolution: Origins of a Species feels like a cinematic miniseries, the kind you have viewing parties for. The unusual writer’s room approach starts as a gimmick to get you interested, but, though it can leave stories spinning their wheels for an issue or so, it develops into an effective way of giving the series a greater scope. Indeed, unlike the omnipresent enemy that infects the series, Evolution lives up to its name, defined by a gradual, additive process that leaves you unable to pinpoint where something changed for the horrific or into something deeper. With enigmatic visuals that make terrific use of density and negative space alongside Templesmith-esque colors that are used with impressive direction, it’s really a beautiful comic.
This seems like the proper way to enjoy Evolution so if you enjoy pensive body horror, especially if you missed it in singles, this collection is one you can’t afford to let hide from you.
Evolution vol. 1: Origins of a Species is currently available in comic shops from Image Comics.