Halloween Horror: Deep Roots by Watters, Rodrigues, Farrell and Bidikar

Deep Roots 
Written by Dan Watters 
Art by Val Rodrigues 
Colored by Triona Farrell 
Lettered by Aditya Bidikar 
Published by Vault Comics 

It doesn't matter how good your idea is, it’s all about the execution. And there are some ideas where there’s such potential for them to go not just bad but HORRIBLY wrong. The elevator pitch for the Vault Comics book Deep Roots is just such an idea (“Plants and trees rising up, killing the evil humans that threaten and destroy them!” “WHEN PLANTS ATTACK!!”). Maybe if you’re lucky you get something cheesy and so-stupid-it’s-fun, and at its worst, you get The Happening (I haven’t seen it, but I’ve not heard good things). Or, maybe you get something scary, weird, unsettling, and poetic, like Deep Roots. Deep Roots is fundamentally scary, but also weird and beautiful - as I’ve said recently, I’m not a horror person but if I keep reading stories as compelling as Deep Roots I might need to rethink that stance.

There is another world (called, appropriately enough, “Otherworld”) that exists beneath ours, or beside it. The Otherworld is the domain of flora - while the most vicious animal (humans) rule over our world, the Otherworld is the domain of trees and other plants - it doesn’t seem to have intelligence or consciousness in the exact same way, but there is certainly thought, feeling, and awareness. It’s connected to our world, and what happens in our world affects the Otherworld.

With all the other things going on in our world right now, you might not have reflected recently on the fact that our environment isn’t getting any better, cleaner or healthier. And if you accept that flora has some sort of intelligence, then centuries of pollution (of the air, water or land), deforestation and the inevitable march of human “civilization” are going to feel like a continuous, brutal attack against the very existence of the plant kingdom. And eventually...that might warrant a response. Deep Roots is the story of that response, and it’s a hell of a story. I’m not going to give too much more away, both because I want a reader to discover the story details for themselves, and because telling you the plot of Deep Roots isn’t even really telling you the story.

There is a lot of attention to detail and thought placed into the world-building. Otherworld really is presented as something “other”. Its nature (and the relationship between Otherworld and our world) is never entirely explained, but I think that feels like an intentional choice, and a good one at that. This story is meant to be a scary mystery - our world is under attack from this weird plant-world, and their world doesn’t function like ours, and they don’t think like we do. In my opinion, one of the worst things about the Star Wars prequels was midichlorians, not just because it seemed silly, but because they took something mysterious and ineffable and turned it into something for which you can take a blood test. So, the Deep Roots team doesn’t fall into that trap; there’s some science-talk, but they let a mystery be a mystery, thus keeping the nature of humanity’s nemesis (and Otherworld generally) unknowable, and therefore a lot scarier. I really appreciate that they’ve kept a number of aspects of the story unexplained - you just go with it, because the world is so beautiful and so compelling. I’m reminded of Pretty Deadly, not in the particulars of the story, but in the way that that book also told a beautifully weird and poetic story and didn’t explain every single thing that’s happening on the page. 

And what a world it is. Deep Roots is a comic that has to be seen to be appreciated. Now sure, you’re thinking “that’s true for literally all comics” - but I can’t really do it justice with words. It does what some of the very best art does, which is that it shows its influences while and creating something original and new. And that’s really all I want from a story - something new, interesting, and non-obvious. I wasn’t familiar with the work of Val Rodrigues before, but I am absolutely certain that Rodrigues’ name and work is one you’re going to want to follow, as Rodrigues is a serious talent. And Rodrigues has, in Triona Farrell, an equally terrific collaborator on colors. Rodrigues has a, intricate level of detail in this story, and shows a world under attack by plants (along with the Otherworld) in some really original ways, bringing both worlds equally to life. Rodrigues does this all while not creating any characters that feel derivative of Swamp Thing, which is one of the first places my mind went when reading this story.

What the art team does in this book, particularly in the Otherworld, is something really special. Otherworld does not look or feel like our world. This is an alien world that also serves as sort of an odd reflection of our world. The contrast is accomplished clearly by some wonderful coloring work. The “real” world has a relatively realistic, muted color palette. Whereas the color and texture and feel of Otherworld most closely reminds me of the work of...Vincent Van Gogh. Not your typical comics influence! But the coloring work in the Otherworld is remarkable, as the every page (and what the pages depict) takes on a texture and weight, from the sky to the trees to the people or other beings inside that world. It feels like “Starry Night” brought to life which could easily turn into a gimmick, but it doesn’t here.

The art team is fully committed to depicting this world as one of thick texture, and so the expressionist art influences become an essential part of the storytelling. It feels like the characters are just moving through a thicker, different sort of world. The other effect that Rodrigues and Farrell use quite effectively in coloring the Otherworld is that the characters in the story take on a slightly more exaggerated, “cartoony” aspect when they go inside the Otherworld. Not enough to be a gimmick, but enough that you can feel that different rules apply inside the Otherworld. In fact, the thing that I’m most reminded of when I watch the characters move inside the Otherworld is the characters in A-Ha’s video for “Take On Me” look as they travel through the cartoon world.

All of this remarkable detail not only looks great but it also serves the story that the creative team is telling. We can’t really hope to understand the thinking of the intelligence behind the Otherworld; all we can really know at this point is that it feels threatened and that it is striking back. This otherness comes across in scenes where the plants and trees start to invade our world. Not only are there incredibly odd sights (talking, machine-gun-wielding vegetable homunculi, anyone?), but the textured, thick color scheme of the Otherworld bleeds into the much more mundane colors of our world. It becomes quite jarring to see this mix, and so the art really conveys the fact that we’re under invasion by something we can’t possibly hope to understand. 

That’s one of the recurring themes in the story, part of what makes Deep Roots not only scary but also really interesting. The basic nature of the threat is unknowable. The fundamental weirdness of the art in Otherworld really helps to sell that, as do other nice touches like the bizarre communication style of some of the plant-beings. It’s not like facing an army or even a terrorist organization. It’s clear that the plants and the other intelligences of the Otherworld don’t think like we do, so they’re not someone or something with which we can reason. In the same way that you can’t argue with a natural disaster like an earthquake or a hurricane. But, much like other meteorological and other situations we are dealing with now as a result of climate change, we are ultimately to blame for the revenge of the plant world in this story. From the perspective of the Otherworld, humanity has been carrying out a campaign of war for a very long time. Only now is the Otherworld fighting back. The unknowable nature of the threat and response serves as some social commentary on environmental responsibility, without hitting the reader over the head with this message in an obvious way. 

Watters and the artistic team do an excellent job of bringing characters to life, both in our world and in the Otherworld. Watters has a strong ear for dialogue. He has a droll wit and does an excellent job capturing the various voices we see, from secret government operatives, to weird characters on never ending missions, to idealistic doctors. These characters are each given distinctive voices that help bring the characters to life. I first encountered Watters' work in his creator-owned series Limbo, where there are similarly a lot of very weird things going on. What I noticed then and now is Watters’ ability to tell a big, weird, high-concept story, while never losing sight of the emotions and humanity of the characters in his story. 

The care and attention to detail in Deep Roots extends to all aspects of the storytelling, including the thoughtful and engaging lettering work done by Aditya Bidikar. There are some great choices made here as to different lettering styles and colors used by various characters (and types of beings) in the story. This was easy to follow, and the color and font/design choices worked well in representing the voice of each of the different sorts of characters. 

I strongly recommend Deep Roots. It’s a thoughtful, beautiful, and scary exploration of an idea that could have gone very differently in the wrong hands. But here, the creative team brings to life something that feels like a combination of a painting, a poem, and our worst fears.