Long Lost was perhaps the comic book surprise of the last year. A quiet little horror book from tiny newcomer publisher Scout Comics, Long Lost follows sisters Piper and Frances Laurent as they’re summoned back to the crumbling town they escaped when they were young, but not young enough. It’s a strange and heady blend of Southern Gothic, magical realism, Junji Ito, and indie comic confessional and it winds deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole as time goes on.
One of Long Lost’s greatest strengths is, frankly, its bravery. The series has an eerie, dreamlike energy that holds perfect clarity in the moment but grows murky the moment you try to place it in context. The structure staccatos, curling back on itself over and over before it can resolve, but doing so in ways that feel natural.
Writing an indie book like that must be scary, but releasing it serially? That’s horror.
Luckily Matthew Erman, not only keeps a firm hand on the tiller, but breathes into Long Lost a familiar voice that is both disarming and beautiful. The prose and the dialogue continue the dreamy vibe of this story. Erman gifts his characters a poet’s perception and a pulp writer’s cagey reclusiveness.
Through each scene and conversation we sketch out a slightly fuller imagistic sense of the characters. The facts accumulate like detritus, giving a textured and incomplete knowledge of the characters, but one that must be obtained on the book’s terms. Characters don’t explain nearly anything for the audience, but Erman drops just enough hints to keep things on track as his characters’ reactions make clear the shape of their pasts, even if the fine details are locked away until the end or further.
As beautiful as it can be, there is some frustration in Long Lost’s ever unfurling mysteries. The narrative power play of keeping readers off their feet this way is brilliant horror, but this potent trick might not always be worth the difficulty of placing oneself in the story. And keeping things from the reader is alright if the payoff is worth it, to be honest I think it is, but it is far from complete. Each individual issue ends with questions and an eager desire to know how it will come together, but as below, so above. You will not get all the answers in this first series, and what answers you get will come in place of a true conclusion.
For all the beautiful airy prose that Erman puts in the mouths of Hazel Patch, it is the exacting nature of his magic that proves the necessary counterpoint to his deeply interior story arc. Long Lost takes us back to the world of fairy tales, and not the nice ones your parents cleaned up for you as a child. From the Magician’s creaking – perhaps coughing, perhaps parsing – wind-up pleasantries to the liturgy of the Way of the Mountain, there is a precision to the supernatural that reminds us that breaking the rules has consequences, but that we may not know what all or even any of those rules are.
There’s no power fantasy. This is what you’d actually do if you were caught in a supernatural situation. This is how confused and pliable you’d be, even if the comic hints that there is something very much not normal about the Laurents.
And, somehow, this comic gaslights you! Apart from the moment, we know that something is wrong and things aren’t okay so we’re waiting for Frances or Piper to figure it out, but they don’t always, and now you’re waiting for the story to acknowledge that but it won’t, so you accept that maybe it’s subverting your expectations and this is establishing a different trope or paradigm. Which makes it all the crueler when it turns out you were right and how little that prepared you for what’s to come.
Or maybe it does the opposite and expects that you’ll double down if it feeds you breadcrumbs…
Long Lost’s strange pacing made monthly serialization a mixed fit for the series. Luckily the chapter breaks are retained with the original cover art. The series benefits greatly from the ability to read it as a continuous narrative, while holding onto the guidance of the individual issues. Overall Long Lost reads better as a single unit, with greater clarity and each example of its unique story sense echoing off of each other.
In collection there’s also the context to see that this is effectively a generational tale. Long Lost exists in at least three eras: the sisters’ present, their parents’ generation and childhood’s end, and a third, as of yet unseen, period where all of this began. As the series goes on, the stark focus on Piper and Frances is joined by the ambiguous connection between Jody and Joanna, scaling the danger and intrigue alongside the sisters’ growing agency.
The book is also the debut of Lisa Sterle, who’s already clearly been recognized for the potency that her art brings to the title. On Long Lost, Sterle proves herself a deceptively efficient artist. Her style brings a familiar, manga-inspired tinge to the book, with unfussy lines and an honest air about it. It would be easy for the superficial to write Sterle off at a glance. The simplicity of her line work, the anime influence, the somewhat loose models of the characters are nothing new and have all been favored punching bags, regardless of talent, for smug would-be art critics for a long time. But part of what’s so effective about Long Lost is the way it takes the best of that sincere, webcomic look and utilizes it with impressive purpose.
Sterle’s minimal panels cut right to the core of the scene. Extraneous detail is rare and fidelity is never sacrificed but always secondary to tone. But, as soon as a little something extra is required to sell the particulars of the moment, Sterle provides the exact lines and details needed, falling back on tradition where necessary and stretching the book’s personable creativity where possible.
Likewise, the monochrome palette seems like an outgrowth of Long Lost’s indie roots, but it is a flat out deception. Sterle makes this comic more vibrant than many full color books through use of shading and some clever tricks. Perhaps one of the most amazing things about Long Lost is how Sterle manages to hide – literally hide – elements within her panels. Despite the straightforward linework and often limited backgrounds, you’ll easily find yourself shocked by eerie guests in subsequent reads if you’re not careful. The difficulty of spotting some of these spectral spectators has much to do with Sterle’s knowledge of composition but also owes a lot to her backgrounds.
For a book that can happily do away with background color altogether, Long Lost features some gorgeous backdrops. Sterle’s watercolor gradients highlight the harsh, flat coloring of her characters in wonderful ways and her depictions of nature are at once stunning and hypnotically quiet. You could easily barely notice this incredible aspect of the book or spend half your time with the book studying them, its really down to how you read comics.
Of course, this has all focused on technique. It’s hard to imagine how different the content of the story would be if Sterle were not our artist. From the particularities of Piper and Frances’ smiles and scowls to the masks of the Others, Sterle leaves her mark all over Long Lost. Both the utterly mundane and the horrifically fantastic come alive under Sterle’s pen. The creeping, corrupting forces arrayed against the sisters have an undeniable dread about them and the way that Sterle mixes the familiar and the mysterious is a huge part of their unsettling appeal.
The monsters in this story always have emotions in their eyes and bodies, tugging on your empathy even as they prove deeply untrustworthy. No matter how horrific they are, something human remains, not only stealing easy answers from us, but ever calling to mind the horror of becoming something foreign and horrible. Creatures continue to walk and function long after pain or damage should have resigned them to the grave and the artwork calls to mind the horrible squish of slipping entrails or of sickeningly slick bodies sliding against each other.
Long Lost’s art is quite particular, it has a definite look to it, however, the range is notable. Within the same book as all of the twisted growths I described above, you’ll also find one of the cutest dogs in comics and some remarkably specific protagonists. No matter how varied the demands of the script are, Sterle is able to keep it at a consistent level of quality and ensure that, for the most part, it all feels equally natural to her style.
Perhaps one of the most remarkable elements of Sterle’s art is her mastery of pace and speed. You can almost feel the precise floaty velocity of Sterle’s panels, our perspective drifting through Hazel Patch or stopped cold as the grave. And then, when whatever metaphorical serpent Sterle has crafted is fully coiled, the swiftness of her strikes is unparalleled. Sterle mostly employs fairly basic motion lines and framings to achieve this effect, but it works. And that’s really the core of the book’s visual appeal.
Lisa Sterle is clearly a talented artist, but Long Lost doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel. Instead it relies on mastery and combination of essentials and Sterle’s forceful imagination to make a book that’s fairly simple in many respects feel like one of the artistic debuts of 2018.
And, as if that weren’t enough, the collection also includes a sampling of brief mini-comics by other artists, commissioned before the series’ release. While they’re very cool, they aren’t a reason to pick up the trade if you already have the singles. What they do offer is a fascinating opportunity to see how the concept of the series was communicated to and rendered by different artists, and a chance to see a little more of Piper and Frances before issue #7 drops later this month.
I fully expect that there will be readers who just don’t appreciate this book, who won’t get what all the fuss is about, and that’s ok. But Long Lost’s mix of the loftily literary and the unflinchingly honest suffuses both writing and art. Together with Erman’s haunting story and eerily real characters, Sterle’s art seals Long Lost as an indie classic, a positively gorgeous tale of Millennial horror. Though it’s a little short on answers, it’s rich in truth and technique. Long Lost stands out as one of the best and most distinctive comics of 2018.
Long Lost: Book 1 is expected to arrive on July 18th, 2018 from Scout Comics.