An Origin Most Tragic: Reviewing ‘Stillwater’ #16
by Scott Redmond
‘Stillwater’ expands the horror and human experience explorations of this series through the use of a perfectly constructed flashback issue, capturing the energy and tone of the Civil War era it taps into. A powerful tragedy wrapped up in stunning tangible visuals that allow us to stand beside the point of view character and feel her pain. Truly a powerful encapsulation of the energy that makes this title so unique and intriguing.
An end is on the horizon for the story of Stillwater, with only two more issues remaining. Sometimes before one can reach the end of a story, it proves beneficial to go back to the very beginning. That’s what the sixteenth issue of this immortal human horror story does, pulling back the curtain at last to what has caused the immortality and what very well could end it all.
I’ve greatly appreciated the slow burn and building of lore that Chip Zdarsky has done through all the issues, allowing the compelling characters and their drama and the horror of the situations really shine through and keep our attention. Much like other stories of this type I was quite fine if we never learned why this immortality happened but knew that if we did find out that it would be something we didn’t expect that hit all the same emotional marks as the series has already done. Zdarsky definitely delivered in that regard.
Clara turns out to be far more important than we assumed, and far older than anyone in the town. We’re thrown right back into the 1800s (mostly in the 1860s) within this story, as that is when she was living with her husband and twin sons. Sons that would have been triplets except one died the day they were born, something which stayed with her for many years up till the event happened. Tragedy kept striking this family as the brothers were divided, one went to war and died, the other was verbally and physically abused into following in his brother’s footsteps and eventually they lost it all.
Having a character make an ill-advised deal with a malevolent supernatural being is nothing new, but the human-emotional element of this story is so well crafted we can understand why Clara does this. It’s quite intriguing how Zarsky brings the whole burying people thing around for us to discover that burying Clara actually causes the curse around her to fade, which is why the immortality curse wasn’t really a thing till she crawled out of her makeshift grave in 1985. Of course, that is also why Wilson was able to be killed at the end of the previous issue and is still dead.
Even with the supernatural elements that led to this curse, Zdarsky has kept much of the horror centered around the human toll of things. This is a tragic story of loss on ‘s behalf, and that tragedy is spread through so many others as she returns to the world and brings the immortality curse to Stillwater once more. What really works is how the series has focused on the horror that comes with living forever, and how it stagnates things, in this issue, Clara’s story showcases how mortality comes with its own brutal horror. Pain and loss and war and all the rest are the horrors that are born of humanity.
Riding that horror vibe all this time has been Ramón K Perez and Mike Spicer who breathe so much wondrous visual life into this series and world. There is depth and weight to this world, but really what always stands out is how deep and tangible the human/character elements are on the page. Perez does such a wonderful job at showcasing emotion and body language, giving us great shots of the characters in closeup or similar panel types, so that we can feel the anger or pain or loss that we’re meant to in every given space.
We get a lot less of the action and brutality that came with aspects of the previous issues, as emotion and loss is the paramount focus. Perez gives tons of small panels that shift between wide shots and close-ups that keep putting us into Clara’s world and mind space allowing us to ride along for her tragic tale. All the focus is on Clara and those around her or the things she’s doing (like drawing the maps) and in many panels, the detail is drawn back, sometimes panels just have figures and blank color backgrounds keeping us focused on the moment and not what else is happening. As things intensify we begin to get some really inspired panels that take things up so many notches.
One example of this is the page where Clara is buried alive. We get three panels at the top that shows us her son Oliver coming to rescue her as the dirt is being placed on Clara, and then we get three vertical panels. Here one is just her eye watching in horror at the vision of her son being stabbed in the second and then darkness as she’s covered and buried away. Alongside those, we get a full panel of just darkness of Clara being buried and then digging out in the ’80s, and a panel that is just stunning of her burning down the library to try and erase the records of her time while watching.
Depicting three different timelines is easy in one manner when architecture, clothing, and other stuff are very different. Visually that helps, but taking it one step further is what Spicer does here. In many regards the color palette in use shifts a bit for the different time periods, giving the 1860s a visually ‘old timey’ sort of appearance compared to the ’80s and the modern-day spaces. We get a lot of browns and sort of washed-out or muted colors next to vibrant pops of color (many are those aforementioned panels with just a splash of color for the background) in the 1800s, whereas there is an overall sort of yellowish filter applied to many of the scenes from the ’80s. Our modern-day panels slip back into the more standard darker tones that Spicer has been using for the town all this time.
The panels mentioned above with the burial and the violence that led to her burial are so vivid because Spicer brings in a whole slew of vibrant bloody red colors and strong deep black shadows, especially when Clara is buried. It sets a mood instantly, showing us the violence and horror without the art needing to get too overly brutal in depicting it all. We can see and feel that something has changed and things are taking a turn.
All this shifting also allows Rus Wooten to play around more with the lettering work. We get all the usual great work that he brings to the page capturing tone/volume and personality within words, alongside something more. All of the opening moments are told by Clara in captions where the font is a bit more old feeling written across old tattered paper-looking caption boxes. Some of that old feeling font is brought out of the boxes and is just on the page, sometimes shrouded in darkness, especially during the page where Clara is being buried, it’s a muted yellow font plastered on the darkness, the last thing of her remaining there in the darkness. It breaks up the all-black panel of her buried underground, keeping us feeling the isolation with her as she just has her thoughts and mind to keep her going.
Stillwater #16 is now available from Image Comics.