October 21, 2020

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Review - Something Is Killing The Children by James Tynion IV and Werther Dell'Edera

Something Is Killing The Children
Written by James Tynion IV
Illustrated by Werther Dell'Edera
Colors by Miquel Muerto
Letters by Andworld Design
Published by Boom! Studios
 
Something Is Killing The Children (SIKTC for short) is a great, terrifying read that works on a number of different levels and feels especially suited for the world we're living in right now. That's not intended to make you run in the other direction, but simply an acknowledgement that SIKTC is not a light, easy read.  It's about fear and terror and abandonment, and feeling alone and misunderstood, and it's also about the feeling that no one's in charge and there's no one to keep us safe. But it's also about giant monsters and an incredibly badass monster-hunter! And, told skillfully by writer James Tynion IV, artist Werther Dell'Edera and colorist Miquel Muerto, SIKTC is a stunning, freaky read. It does what great speculative or genre fiction can do, which is to shine a light on our world with enough distance to give us an enjoyable story, but close enough to our lives to make us feel uncomfortable (in a good way). SIKTC is a must-read for horror fans. 

SIKTC begins with one of the most terrifying and anxiety inducing experiences one can have: the adolescent sleepover. James has 3 friends over and they’re engaging in the exciting but also terrifying game of “truth or dare”. One of the boys asks James what’s the most scared he’s ever been. And he tells them about a terrifying noise and sight he saw down by the ravine. So they head down to check it out. 

The next thing we know, James is in a police interrogation room, and his friends are all dead. Killed by something he can’t identify, but he initially said was a monster, but now he says it isn’t. Because of course, monsters aren’t real, he tells the police officer. But people are scared, and they react poorly and all sorts of ways when they’re scared. James lives in the town of Archer’s Peak, Wisconsin, and there are nine dead kids and more kids have gone missing. James alone survived the attack, and as a result has found himself the target of speculation and rumor; he might’ve been a suspect, but regardless of whether the police charge him with anything, people are skeptical of him. He survived, and others didn’t. People are freaked out. 

James feels all alone, but soon he meets someone new in town, who’s interested in what *really* happened in the woods that night. Her name is Erica Slaughter, and she knows monsters are real. And she’s going to kill them. Erica is in Archer’s Peak to kill monsters, but she herself immediately become suspect. To the police, to a local waiter at a restaurant (named Tommy Mahoney) whose sister is missing, and to the owner of the motel where she’s staying and where he swears he’s hearing weird noises coming out of her room. 

But Erica is determined to save the people of Archer's Peak, and not even getting detained by the police he’s going to stop her from that mission. Reluctantly she lets James tag along with her as she prepares to take on the monster, and Tommy plays a role there as well. The remainder of the first arc follows their efforts to find the monster and her efforts to kill it. They do find it, and Erica does kill it, but unfortunately their problems are far from over.

There are still more monsters to be killed, and the second arc of the story delves deeper into the efforts to find and kill those monsters. Along the way, the story also gives us some insight into who and what Erica is, and why she does what she does. We can also see throughout the arc that for James, for the people in charge, and for everyone else generally, things in Archer's Peak seem to just be going from bad to worse.

I love a comic that is full of great, interesting ideas, and feels like it has something to say about the world. But even more than that, I love a great story where the ideas don't subsume the story. It’s hard sometimes not to let your big ideas overwhelm the sense of story. I was reading a graphic novel recently which had great art and an overall compelling narrative, but there were times when characters were talking and it just didn’t feel like actual human beings having a conversation with one another. Instead, it felt more like a political science or history textbook. All of this is to say that it can sometimes be tricky to tell a story that balances narrative, thematic, and intellectual elements, but I’m very happy to say that SIKTC walks that line in an incredibly adept, terrifying, and compelling way. Tynion has a great grasp on what is really scary, here and in other stories such as Memetic (where an internet meme turned everyne in the world into zombies, and other far weirder things) and The Woods (which saw an entire high school teleported to a scary alien world)

Monsters throughout fiction have served as a narratively useful way to embody specific fears. Vampire stories serve as a way to reckon with fears of sexuality. Zombies feel like a clever way to embody either notions of our conformist society, or the idea that we can’t trust anyone around us, and when things go bad, our friends and neighbors will be out to get us. Godzilla is very much a walking, fire breathing embodiment of humanity's terrible reckoning with the atomic bomb and its consequences, and our fears for a future that might not happen because of nuclear war. All of these various kinds of monsters very effectively bring to life, in a fictionalized and exaggerated way, the very real fears that people have. 

So what might the monsters here be? These are terrifying monsters, and they seem to be harming only children. Adults, for whatever reason, can’t even see these monsters. So for James, and any other kid who has seen the evil of these monsters, and seeing what they can do, that kid is trapped. If adults can’t see the monsters then there’s no way the adults are going to believe the children. They’ll say the monsters aren't real And that the children are making these stories up, for one reason or another. To get attention, or maybe to cover up something they themselves have done, or as a way to cope with thoughts and feelings that the children may have experienced that might be scary or difficult. I can’t speak to authorial intent, but I very much read these monsters as a metaphor for abuse. 
 
I thought about the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal, and of the generations of traumatized children who not only experienced abuse from people they were supposed to be able to trust, but also probably not believed by the people around them (whether that’s parents or someone else). A situation where these were children who suffered and were let down by those around them who were supposed to protect them. But these monsters seem more broadly to be a metaphor for any situation, whether it is abuse, bullying (in-person or cyber), or other context where kids are suffering and adults can't see it for one reason or another. Kids are suffering, and adults not only don’t know how to stop it, but the suffering is literally invisible to those adults. The monsters prey on kids because they're more vulnerable, and also because the kids are young and impressionable and believe that the monsters are possible, as opposed to adults (whose brains have earned over time to completely reject the impossible).
 
James is the only survivor of the attack, and at the outset of SIKTC people are suspicious of him, and think he might have killed his friends. He’s quiet, and that seems to immediately make him suspect to some people. His sexuality makes him suspect to other teens, and the fact that he survived has literally (at least at the outset) made him a suspect in their deaths. It’s very clear that he’s suffering tremendous trauma and also survivor’s guilt. All of this came out of a story he told his friends during a game of “Truth or Dare” and now his friends are gone and he’s getting suspicious looks in his small town.
Adults can’t see the monsters. But what can they see? They can only see the terrible consequences. They see dead children, they see a surviving kid who’s suffering, and they see things they can’t possibly explain. This story began in 2019, but the reality is that it’s actually become a very prescient look at the world we are living in right now in 2020.  The reality in Archer’s Peak is that law enforcement (and anyone else) is basically powerless to do anything about the killing. They have no idea what’s going on, and they have no idea how to stop it. Instead, they become preoccupied with the wrong things. 

Whether that’s investigating one of the child victims, or harassing Erica (who seems to be the only person in town who actually understands what’s going on and how to stop it), this comic speaks pretty poorly (but accurately) about those who are in charge, and those who are supposed to protect people. Particular they’re supposed to protect those who are most vulnerable among us. The adults in SIKTC are sadly a very effective illustration of how people cope with tragedy. Sometimes they become fixated on the things they can control, and sometimes they turn to substance abuse, and sometimes they look for someone or something to blame. Honestly, I’m not simply blaming the adults in SIKTC. They’re facing something out of their depth. I’m also one of those adults who looks around at terrible things happening and doesn’t know what to do.

SIKTC really gets at a fundamental idea, in a freaky and unnerving way.  Monsters are scary, sure.  But you know what’s really scary? Feeling alone. Feeling like no one believes you or understands you, and feeling like you’re in danger and there’s no one looking out for you.  It can be terrifying to know something terrible is out there and that you don’t know what’s going on. But what’s really frightening is the idea that the people in charge, the ones who are ostensibly there to protect you, don’t know anything more than you do, and they too have no idea to stop what’s happening. That’s far more terrifying to me than any freaky monster. Now what sets this a story a little bit apart from the real world is that at least the town of Archer's Peak has Erica Slaughter (whether they appreciate her or not). Because the fantastical idea here is sadly not that there’s an unseen terror wreaking havoc in our world. No, the fantastical notion is that someone is going to stride into town, know what they’re doing, and (hopefully) save the day. 

But I fear I might’ve given you the wrong impression, that SIKTC is a thought-provoking, weighty slog. Well it’s definitely thought-provoking, but it’s a highly entertaining, compelling horror comic. I think the story gives us enough such that we dare about the characters and are invested in their well-being and safety. But it’s a horror comic, so it’s there to scare the crap out of us. And it very successfully does, thanks to the incredible artistic team of Dell’Edera and Muerto. From the very first page of this book, the art in SIKTC makes clear that while this is a story about monsters, the terror and fear is completely real. This is haunting and sometimes horrific art. Dell’Edera and Muerto work incredibly well together to create a world where it’s very plausible there are monsters all around us and we just don’t see it. 

 
I’d never seen Dell'Edera’s work before but it’s a revelation. Dell'Edera’s line work is exaggerated and angular and yet somehow very much embodies the real world. It feels something like a combination of Jock (for the scratchy, angular, terifying style on display in Wytches) and Nathan Fox (for the exaggerated figure work and innovative panel layout), which is an incredible combo. Dell'Edera uses a highly varied panel layout to control pacing in the story, moving from intricate panels within panels, to terrifying splash pages (such as the moment above where Tommy doesn't recognize that there's a monster right in front of him), and everything in between. 

Dell-Edera's character design work is first-rate here. Erica Slaughter is an absolute standout. She's clearly fit but not physically imposing; not necessarily someone you'd expect to be an expert monster-killer. But she's terrifying in her own way. You almost never see one of her eyes because it's covered by hair, and the eye you do see is unsettling. It's to big, as one of the characters in the story says. Her eye has seen things and knows things that it shouldn't, and it can't unsee those things. But the piece de resistance for Erica is when she puts on her bandana, around her nose and mouth. It's black, with sharp white teeth and it's completely terrifying. If you're a monster and you see Erica with her bandana, and her machetes (or maybe a chainsaw), you should be very scared. 

But that masterful design work doesn't exist only in the line work. In fact, it's inextricably linked to the color choices made in this story, which inform not just the color palate of the story, but the entire look and design of the world. The overall color choices by Muerto in SIKTC are perfect for the tone of the story.  Even the daytime scenes have a pale, faded feel. And the darkness is terrifying. Muerto has an amazing grasp of light and shadow. From the very beginning of the story, where James is telling his friends about what he heard and saw, the shadows cast in the bedroom convey a real sense of suspense and terror, giving everyone's face an ominous look, and in some cases making James appear almost like a silhouette. At other points, the art takes on a deliberately soft, almost impressionistic feel. Such as the above scene of the terrified girl telling herself she doesn't believe in monsters. That choice gives the page a nightmare-like feel to it. SIKTC is full of many such deliberate and thoughtful artistic choices.

One of the key elements in a monster story is, of course, the monster. The monster needs to be legitimately scary. And hopefully, something interesting, something that doesn't feel like every other monster we've seen before. That's a challenge, but it's something at which Dell'Edera and Muerto are very successful.  First, to reiterate, it's a clever idea to provide that only kids can see the monsters, not adults.  Even when, in the above page, they're right in front of those adults (such as Tommy).  At least at the outset of the story, the monsters are shown in a way that is meant not to give too clear of a picture of them. But when we finally see them, they are absolutely terrifying.  Like some sort of horrible crab-spider creature. 

The coloring throughout the story is not overly rendered, but the coloring with respect to the monsters is even flatter. Such that they're almost entirely unrendered.  So the monsters appear almost like something that is unreal, and/or incongruous, that shouldn't exist within the reality of this story.Their color isn't even like black, it's more like an absence of light. This coloring choice is perfect for the role the monsters play in the story, as something primal and almost elemental. The art does a terrific job of not showing too much and leaving some to the imagination. But the gore, when it happens is horrific. This isn't a Nailbiter-level of gore. But expect some grisly, horrifying scenes.  

For horror fans that are looking for big scares, suspense, and genuine terror, I strongly recommend SIKTC. And for horror fans who understand the power of the genre to explore larger, sometimes difficult social issues, I even more strongly recommend SIKTC. It's both a terrifying metaphor for 2020, and a masterfully told tale of suspense. Either way, it's a must-read.

[The first volume of SIKTC is available collected, and issue #11 is out today]