The Short Version: Frederick Allan has gotten out of the monster hunting business and become a father and professor. But his kids have their own desires to join the family business, so when his estranged wife returns to the fold… what else is a family to do but go into business together?
The Review: It’s no secret to say that I love Halloween and all that comes with the month of October – so when I heard tell of a new comic about a family of monster hunters, I was immediately intrigued. And when I flipped through the first issue at my local comic shop some time ago, I was hooked by virtue of being thrown into the middle of a story and world that I didn’t know anything about but that felt… familiar, let’s say. It felt like a version of the world in my head, that all-too-briefly visited October Country – so much so that, sitting in my new apartment in Brooklyn on a rainy cool afternoon, I convinced myself that I was there for a little while.
Right off the bat, we have to talk about Damien Worm’s art. Take the opening pages of the series, when Geoff (Allan’s son) is confronted by a jock bully from high school (they’re both a year out, Geoff unwilling to go to college and the jock unable to after losing a scholarship). There are moments of ordinary comic book art here but then Worm layers in what I think I can only describe as atmosphere: a gauzy filter one moment, unexpected shading and shadowing the next. And when the ghosts of the jock’s three dead friends are revealed surrounding him, it’s an electrifying panel. So much is revealed about the world through the artwork in just a few pages (any few pages, really), as much if not more than Steve Niles delivers in the course of this entire opening volume. Worm captures the appropriate creepiness of rickety old Victorians, of terrifying ghouls and monsters, of the sort of story that slides one step further into horror than the Addams Family – which is right where I want to be, in my mind, sometimes. Put another way: it’s a little Tim Burton, a little Dave McKean, a little “The Woods” by San Fermin, and a little Guillermo del Toro, mixed together by Bradbury-via-King.
Meanwhile, there’s the story itself. I was surprised, really, how much of this first volume felt expository to me. We’re dropped into what strives to be the “middle” of a story – Allan estranged from his wife, his kids rebelling, plus all the former monster hunter stuff – but what can’t help feeling like a beginning from word one. There’s a trick to really beginning a story in media res and Niles doesn’t achieve it here, so we spend six issues just learning who these people are and only at the end of this first volume – six months in, if you were reading it issue by issue – do we seem to have a coalesced sense of who these people are and at least a little bit of a sense of the forces arrayed around them. It was difficult to cheer that Frederick and Deloris got back together because we’d never really understood them as being apart – and it was rather obvious that Geoff & Vivian would get to follow in their father’s footsteps and join the family business, right from the start. So a little more pep in the step of the story would’ve been appreciated.
But that also does a disservice to the story that’s here, which is interesting and promises great things to come down the line. I’m not so much of a traditional-comic reader anymore, but this is the origin story and I suppose that’s pretty okay to have to go through in order to get to the next round. We can’t all open like Saga or The Wicked + the Divine, you know?
What we do get here is plenty of world-building, helped of course by the delicious artwork by Worm. It’s not as terrifying as, say, Wytches – but watching flashbacks of a younger Frederick and his friend/colleague Lucas raiding a nest of vampires and other nasties delivers some of the big expected monsters (vampires, werewolves, witches, general crazy people) and, in conjunction with the classroom setting and the big Allan manse, we start to build the world out from the page. Even as I was pushing for the story to race forward a bit faster, I was also sinking into each page and enjoying the slow burn for what it was. Even something as simple as a character walking down the street and having a brief interaction with another person built the world far more than it does in most writing, graphic or regular novel alike.
And if the story itself seemed a little predictable, Niles is out in front of that. Just look at the cover: two tall blonde parents, nearly-twin-looking raven-haired kids… you know there’s a story there and, in one of the best moments of the book, so do the kids. Intimations of an affair? Dispatched and moved on from. It’s almost as though Niles, too, is impatient to get to the meat of the story – but feels like he has to deliver on the background first. And I can’t say I’m too upset about that decision, especially when it’s so nice to live in aesthetically. And I haven’t even mentioned the robot-head kid.
Rating: 4 out of 5. The story itself isn’t much to write home about, not yet anyway, but it promises to develop into something really wonderful and exciting I think. Meanwhile, the artwork is simply to die for – the atmosphere is tremendous and Damien Worm plays with the form just enough to really breathe life into this creepy town and these creepy people. All in all, it’s what I was hoping it would be: a solid debut and a brief moment, almost diametrically across the calendar, to visit the October Country. I can’t wait for what comes next.