Written by Scott Snyder
Drawn by Sean Murphy
Colored by Matt Hollingsworth
Lettered by Jared K. Fletcher
Published by Vertigo Comics
With its underwater industrial complexes, monstrous mer-men and the constant buzz of some impending doom, Scott Snyder and Sean Murphy’s The Wake begins as a cross between H.R. Giger and Mike Mignola's nightmares as humanity loses and the forces of nature overtake the earth. Snyder and Murphy take us right up to that moment of inevitability, as a handful of scientists and adventurers watch the death throes of civilization as we know it. They’ve awakened a civilization of mer-men at the bottom of the ocean and those mer-men flood the coasts. Just as we watch the world as we know it end, Snyder and Murphy throw a wrench into the narrative and jump 200 years into the future. Previously in the book, they've shown glimpses of the past and future but now the focus is solely on the future as we see the world after the assumed apocalypse. Humanity struggles on but still hasn’t recovered from the civilization-altering upheaval that flooded the Earth. Within the span of this book, we go from Alien and the Abyss to Waterworld.
Murphy's artwork is nearly perfect for the first half of the book. Mostly set in an illegal undersea oil drilling platform, his dark, heavy lines are tailor-made for creating the claustrophobic environment. The characters’ oceanographic expertise doesn't prepare her for the discover of mer-men, the vicious and human-like race that we share this world with. With Matt Hollingsworth's softly luminescent colors, Murphy's artwork becomes oppressive, echoing the pressure of the ocean depths. He pulls you into the horror in that first half. You are there with the characters as they are lost and desperate at the bottom of the ocean.
The first five chapters make you think that you are reading a horror story. With his work on Batman and American Vampire, Snyder has built a pop-horror style that's fun and easy to read. The Wake delivers more of that but finds an artistic partner in Murphy who is able to suck the readers into the shadows. The characters in The Wake are clichés (a divorced mother, a hunter, an academic bookworm) and Snyder never seems to want to make them more than that. He categorizes them more than he gives them personalities and stories.
But those thin characters hardly matter. You're not meant to empathize with them but with their plight. At the halfway point of the book, Snyder and Murphy jump 200 years into the future and pick up the story of Leeward, a woman who lives on a drowned Earth. The first half functions just to get us to the second half where the surviving mankind, as exemplified in Leeward, have to find out what it all means. They're left to live with the aftermath of the first half of the book but they're also responsible for finding the answers to the mysteries of the past. The underwater horror story is needed to lead into a futuristic pirate adventure on the high seas.
From the moody, suppressive horror, Snyder and Murphy begin channelling Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples as the future portion of the book more resembles Saga than anything that came before it. The wildly eccentric characters, the visions of recognizable societies disguised by sci-fi trappings and the whims of fancy Snyder and Murphy follow become a hardened Saga, without any of the family drama. Even the stories main character at this point, Leeward, looks a bit like Saga’s lead Alana, both having colored, short-cropped hair. The sense of fancy and fantastical in the second half of this book clashes with the darkness and confined pressures of the first half.
What links both half of The Wake together is the mer-men, the sea monsters who attack civilization in the first half and then continue to subjugate the world in the second half. These nameless creatures are the horror that Snyder and Murphy create that we're supposed to fear in the dark. For this story to work, they should be the creatures of our nightmares. Or at the least, they should be creatures that we understand the fear of. Instead, the mer-men are an anonymous threat, hardly terrifying or sinister as other horror creatures. There's the shock of them but they're never developed into anything beyond another deep-sea creature that we don't understand. Snyder and Murphy make them a threat in this book without ever making them threatening.
Maybe they are not meant to be the threat, though. In an odd swerve towards the end of the book, Snyder and Murphy try to bring the story full circle and look back to the cataclysms that flooded the world and even further back into time. The Wake isn't a book of us versus them but of them versus us, where maybe we are the invaders. That goes back to the initial pages of the book where Lee and the crew of scientists and adventures travel to the ocean depths to discover the mer-creatures. Mankind is less the victims in this book and more of the invaders. They're (pardon the pun) the fishes out of their water who awaken the mer-men through their intrusion into the corners of the world where man is not meant to be.
While the first half of the book is pure horror, the second half starts out as science fiction and uses that to begin exploring the ideas of what mankind may be doing to this world. The Wake is a gorgeous looking book that tries to be many things. It’s horror. It’s science fiction. It’s exploring. It’s adventurous. Unfortunately it never fully commits to any of these things so it becomes a patchwork story. Snyder and Murphy ambitiously try to tackle questions about the very nature of humanity but the book never tries to get us to ask those questions before it asks them for us.
Scott is a recovering English literature major, spending the past 10 years writing about comics. Truthfully, he just doesn't know what to do with his time other than writing about comics. It's a sickness. His old blog is at www.wednesdayshaul.com but he currently blogs and tumbles (is that a verb yet?) at Ilostitatthecomicshop.tumblr.
He also is a review writer for Newsarama and Panel Patter. Scott can be found on Twitter and Facebook.