November 14, 2011

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The Hidden

Written by Richard Sala
Illustrated by Richard Sala
Fantagraphics

The world has gone to Hell.  Whole cities are destroyed, populations are devastated, and survivors are few and far between.  A man who might know the answers wanders in this desert wasteland, joined by a few people who escaped the madness.  Or have they?
As the picture begins to fill in, piece by piece, these people may wish they'd have died, or at least never fallen into the company of the secretive man.  That's the problem when everything is part of...The Hidden.

It is extremely difficult to discuss this book for the purposes of review without spoiling one of the best parts of the narrative.  Suffice it to say that Sala starts off with one horror/suspense plot (the post-apocalyptic world), finds another to place in the middle (not a huge spoiler to mention it's vampires), and adds a third by the last part of the book.  It's the third one that comes out of the blue, hits the reader smack in the face in a way that only a select few horror books can do, and adds a twist to the tale that easily makes this one of my favorite horror comics and one of my contenders for my Best of 2011 list.

Horror is a genre that is often formulaic, but comfortably so.  Find a premise, create interesting characters to live in that premise, and then try your best to make their lives miserable.  That's the essence of any of Stephen King's good books, it's the way The Drifting Classroom works, and Walking Dead might as well put a patent on the process.  We all know the kinds of things that happen in a horror story, and even in The Hidden, the things that happen are not so much shocking because they occur, but because of *why* they occur.  Sala makes his story more original than most not by breaking new ground in the horror genre (if that's even possible these days) but by taking the pieces of the horror puzzle, throwing them in the air, and catching three disparate elements of terror and placing them back to back to back, with some usual breathing points, narratives, and twists thrown in to round out the story.

We have the classic man who knows more than he should, whom we almost feel sorry for--until it's clear that empathy is misplaced.  We have the young couple who fight the odds, only to see the odds are just too high.  We have strangers thrown together, surviving only on a bit of luck.  We have the sanctuary that's not.  All of these things would work just fine in Sala's hands, because of his narrative gifts and illustration style, but to see them work towards an inevitable conclusion that both simultaneously surprises the reader and reinforces the tropes any horror fan looks for in a book of this nature.

Not only is the book carefully structured, it looks stunning.  Sala's watercolors over his pen/pencil lines give the book an imperfection that makes sure the reader understands that this is a dystopia with little hope for survival.  Sometimes the colors are too vivid while at other points they are washed out.  Characters and backgrounds look rough, almost like a really talented kid worked with crayons just outside the lines of his coloring books to show his or her abilities.  Sometimes everything is muted with a single color, to give menace, while other times the reds and blues pop out towards the reader, being about as three dimensional as a traditional comic can get.  I'm very impressed with the craft that went into this book, where even the occasional large narrative bubble can serve as a way to focus the reader on the art.

The Hidden is a story that must be experienced to fully appreciate, but I hope that I've piqued your interest if you might have passed on this one.  (I almost did.)  There is an excellent story of slow-building despair to be found in its pages, with gorgeous depictions and coloring and a horror story that shocks, surprises, and entertains.  Don't let this one get hidden on your shelves!  It may not be Halloween, but I still give this book my highest recommendation!