Nailbiter (Series Review)

Written by Joshua Williamson
Illustrated by Mike Henderson
Colors by Adam Guzowski
Letters & Book Design by John J. Hill
Edited by Rob Levin
Published by Image Comics

Nailbiter is one of those stories for people (like me) that don't think they like horror. Actually, more to the point, it's the horror/crime/mystery/psychological thriller/buddy cop/comedy-drama that you've been waiting for. I love genre mashups, and Nailbiter is a great one. There's some gore (though not an excessive amount), and there are plenty of scares, but there's also a ton of human insight, genuinely funny moments, and terrific dialogue, courtesy of writer Joshua Williamson, and the art team of illustrator Mike Henderson (Henderson is a co-creator of the series) and colorist Adam Guzowski. The final arc was recently collected in a trade (the series was 30 issues, collected in 6 trades), and so the story is available from start to finish. Nailbiter is not for the squeamish, but I thought it was a terrific page-turner of a series with a strong ending that felt right for the book.

Buckaroo, Oregon has the dubious distinction of being the birthplace of 16 different serial killers over a period of years. The most recent of them is Edward Charles Warren, a/k/a "The Nailbiter" due to his tendency to bite his victim's nails (I wasn't kidding, there are definitely some parts of the book that are not for the squeamish).  Warren was captured by FBI agent Eliot Carroll, who 3 years after Warren's capture reaches out to his friend Nicholas Finch, an interrogator for the Army. Carroll is on the verge of uncovering something huge about Buckaroo and its serial killers, when he disappears. Finch, who's dealing with his own significant issues, makes his way to investigate. There he meets up with Sheriff Shannon Crane, and the two of them decide to work together to piece together Carroll's disappearance. Along the way they discover that there's more going on than they realized, as every answer opens up several more questions. 
What makes Nailbiter as successful as it is has to be Williamson's partnership with two fantastic artists in Henderson and Guzowski. They remained a consistent art team throughout the series' 30-issue run (which makes sense given that Henderson is a co-creator of the series). That kind of continuity is so important to a series; I've come to expect frequent art changes in superhero comics, but it can be more jarring in independent books where it's less the norm. Thankfully the art team not only maintained a consistently high standard but they improved throughout the series; the art started off strong to begin with but it really felt like the team grew together. 

So, what makes the art in Nailbiter work as well as it does in telling the story?  Henderson is a very talented visual storyteller that puts great detail in bringing this disturbing world to life. Buckaroo, Oregon is a weird place that I wouldn't want to visit, but it's a fully realized world. Exterior shots of the town feel realistic and consistent throughout the series. Buildings feel like they have weight and substance to them. Interiors (such as Warren's kitchen depicted below) feel realistic and lived in.  I find that if an artist hasn't done a great job in establishing a real sense of place, it's harder for me to step into the reality of a story. Thankfully, Henderson and Guzowski do this exceptionally well.

Henderson also has a terrific sense of character design, including body language, personality and facial acting.  Henderson has a style very much his own, but every once in a while, when I look at one of his characters (particularly Sheriff Chase), I see a little Darwyn Cooke (something about the eyes) though in a much more gritty and realistic, less stylized way. Each character feels like they've been given a distinctive look and personality. Chase is strong but also exasperated, along with coming across like someone who feels like she's got something to prove in her role (given her own past with Warren, which I'll let you discover). Finch comes across as a hard man (his face has a stony, chiseled quality); he's stoic except when his temper comes up, and in that case you see that the stoicism is just a front and he's got a ton of emotion just below the surface. And Warren, he's meant to make the reader uncomfortable and the art team really accomplishes this. He smiles in situations where he shouldn't and you kind of wish he wouldn't, he's relaxed when he should be tense, but sometimes he lets his true emotions out (or are they his true emotions?) and Henderson conveys that change in personality effectively through his facial acting.  The costume and clothing design in the story is also first rate, from drab police wear to the incredibly scary costume that one recurring character wears, to the convincing look that Henderson gives to one precocious, badass teenager.

Guzowski does a lot of strong, distinctive color work in Nailbiter.  It's skilled, versatile work, as Nailbiter calls for a lot of different coloring styles in a lot of different situations.  Interrogation rooms can be cold and sterile, but also have color that shows their wear (or the occasional blood spot).  Much of Nailbiter takes place in darkness, either because it takes place during the night or because the book is taking place in dark locations (either literally or figuratively). Guzowski has a great grasp on the coloring of those scenes, as there's a variety to them. He realistically captures the characters in low-light scenes without ever making the action difficult to distinguish (something I really appreciate, and which shows the partnership between Guzowski and Henderson). Guzowski also does something else really specific in those scenes set in the dark that adds to the realism of the story, which is that he has a really good grasp on where the light is coming from in a particular scene. Where there's light and shadow, the art really conveys that the light is coming from somewhere, which isn't always necessarily the case in comic art generally. 

As just one example of Henderson and Guzowski's partnership with each other and with Williamson, there's a lot of great sequential storytelling in the kitchen scene below.  Henderson fills the scene with great enriching details (the backsplash, the older corded phone on the wall) and moving the reader along in the panels, from a scene of the 3 main characters (where Finch can't help but watch Warren cook), to just Finch and that pot, and finally to the visceral, disgusting boiling pot that has caught Finch's eye, back to Finch and Warren (where their faces are studies in contrasting emotions, Finch's disgust and Warren's sociopathic charm) and over to Chase who indicates that the action is going to move along.  Guzowski's color details, from the realistically bland color of the cabinets and the fridge are contrasted with the splatter of blood on Warren's apron and seeping out of the pot, and the contents of the pot (on which we actually stay for only one panel) are visceral and expressive in a way that the rest of the page is not.
This more visceral and atmospheric coloring is sometimes used by Guzowski to show what's going on in characters' heads. A change from a less intense to a more intense color sometimes indicates a character's change in emotions. Along these lines, there are times where a character might experience murderous thoughts or fantasies, and at those moments the panel might be just saturated with red as the character thinks bloody thoughts or has an overwhelming series of violent emotions. 

The "saturation of red" leads me into one other thing that's really well-done in Nailbiter, and that's the disgusting, horrific violence that characters perpetrate on one another. There's no getting around it, Nailbiter is at times a disgusting book. Characters are stabbed, shot, burnt alive, have limbs chopped off, have their mouths sewn shut, have their fingernails chewed off, and are beheaded. There's blood and limbs and viscera everywhere. Thankfully, this isn't every page or even most pages of the comic, but it's there, and as long as you're ready for it, Henderson and Guzowski bring the violence to disgusting life on the pages of Nailbiter. I won't say it isn't gratuitous (because it occasionally is), but I don't actually think it's excessive for the storytelling, and it adds to the storytelling rather than detracting from it. This is a horribly violent town, and Nailbiter doesn't shy away from this.

The crazy violence is one place where the terrific lettering work from Hill comes across. There's (not surprisingly) a lot of screaming in Nailbiter, along with a lot of gory sound effects that help bring to life a lot of the gory happenings in the story.  Hill's general lettering work and particularly some of the larger-than-life sound effects lettering really help sell the horror of these scenes.

Nailbiter is great, engaging comic storytelling.  One of the specific things I like about Williamson's work here in Nailbiter (and elsewhere) is his fondness for genre mashups.  For example, Birthright is like "family drama meets epic fantasy", and Ghosted is like "horror meets Oceans 11 or a Guy Ritchie movie". Nailbiter is a story that's legitimately disgusting and extremely scary at times, as good horror should be. But it's also a story about a woman acting as sheriff in a small town full of mysteries and her time investigating these mysteries with the proverbial army officer who is a man on a mission who plays by his own rules. I do get a little bit of a Lethal Weapon vibe, which is absolutely a selling point for me. So Nailbiter balances huge conspiracies, weird small town drama, procedural/mystery stories, all with an element of wit and humor throughout. It's a tough balancing act but I think Williamson and team pull it off.

I've been a fan of Williamson's work for a while now, on books such as Ghosted and Birthright. I think he has a really strong, clear, distinctive storytelling voice, and an interest in telling stories that are rooted in emotion and also highly entertaining genre fiction; I think he's just really clear in getting at his character's actions and motivations. When I met him a few years ago, I mentioned that I thought he had a really good handle on the parenting aspects of the storytelling in Birthright, and at the time he wasn't a parent but he just really got some subtle points about the interactions and sources of tension between parents. 

Similarly here in Nailbiter, there's a number of different voices and characters whose story Williamson is telling, and I think he paints clear, distinctive voices for each of their characters and also focuses on the fundamental question of "what does this character want"?  In the case of Finch, he wants clarity on what happened to his friend Carroll, and sees this as a chance to make amends for some terrible things he's done in his own life. Chase wants to prevent murders in her town, but she also wants to (similar to Finch) make up for some bad choices in her past. The question of what Warren wants is a little murkier, much like his character is murky. He's one of the central mysteries in the story - not whether he committed a whole bunch of murders (he did) but what kind of person is he? Is he driven by some uncontrollable urges, is he capable or change, is his cool demeanor just an act? There's a lot of questions, but it's clear he wants to be in Chase's life and he likes being useful, along with possibly having mixed feelings about his fame/infamy.

So this all sounds dark, right? It's not, and that's part of Williamson's skill as a writer. He brings wit and humor to what could otherwise be a plodding and overly self-serious psychological thriller. There are strong psychological elements here, but the humor comes from all sorts of places, such as devoting an entire issue to having well-known comic writer Brian Michael Bendis show up in town and attempt to learn about the Nailbiter and other serial kills and then think better of it. There's also a lot of astute commentary about the media and capitalism and the many enterprising and disgusting ways that people can find to capitalize on the infamy of Buckaroo, Oregon. There's also some terrifically dark humor that comes from the historical serial killers themselves. Like the serial killer who killed people who talked during movie showings, and other darkly funny or ironic killers. 

And in addition to being a compelling mystery and psychological horror-thriller, Nailbiter is also about a more fundamental question that really seems to echo throughout the series and all of its main characters. That question is - are we fated to become something? If all the signs point to our life going a certain way, is it inevitable? Can we control our own destiny? It's a theme that all of the main characters wrestle with throughout the book to varying degrees, and a pretty universal question. Now, most of us are not (hopefully) wrestling with the question of "am I fated to become a serial killer" but the concern is real and relatable nonetheless.

Nailbiter asks these questions not only at the individual level, but at the community/town level as well. The townspeople are afraid that either they may turn out to be the next serial killer, or their friend or neighbor, or someone they don't like. This fosters an attitude of distrust, as people are quick to accuse others of being the next serial killer (kids use this as a way to taunt other kids). The story shows that this can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, as kids seem to either run away from or embrace the idea that they could be the next killer. There are some interesting ideas here that the creators put forth, with respect to the way that (more generally) if people in a community are told that they're destined to be a certain way, it makes it a lot harder to escape that fate. Nailbiter ultimately does some interesting things with these questions of fate and destiny (about which I'm not going to say very much in order to avoid spoilers), and ties them into the idea that no matter what we think our fate might be, we still bear responsibility for the choices in our lives.

So if you're not turned off by blood and gore, and you're interested in a smart, highly entertaining and engrossing (pun intended) read full of murder, mystery, weird conspiracies and interesting ideas on the nature of free will, I highly recommend Nailbiter.