Drew: Maintaining a sense of tension in an ongoing story is an unenviable balancing act. If a writer plays things too subtly, the tension is lost, but if it’s laid on too thickly, it looses all meaning. After building to what seemed like a sure climax in issues 8 and 9, Scott Snyder brings things down to a simmer for the introduction of Anton Arcane, but a simmer that seems more primed to burst than anything in the previous four issues. That a quiet conversation in a swamp can feel more dangerous than whole armies of the undead is a testament to Snyder’s writing, which continues to feel somehow both inevitable and innovative.
As the issue opens, we see Anton describing Abby as the fated harbinger of the Rot to some poor helpless soul. That description accompanies images that seem to contradict it as Abby rushes Alec to the swamp to help him recover. When they arrive at the swamp, Alec explains that he somehow magicked the essence of the Parliament of Trees there in hopes that they might grow to be as they once were. Just before he heads into the swamp, Alec explains that his recovery will take some time, during which he won’t be able to help Abby, should she need it. As soon as she leaves the swamp, Anton confronts Alec, delivering the monologe from the beginning of the book — a monologue that ended with him braining Alec. Anton then confronts Abby with a few of his grotesque Un-Men in tow.
What’s truly brilliant about the reveal that Alec was the victim of that monologue is that it really isn’t a surprise. At the start of the issue, we don’t know for sure who Anton is speaking to, so all we have to go on is the clinging sense of dread of his monologue. However, as the issue progresses, it becomes clearer and clearer that he couldn’t be speaking to anyone but Alec, that sense of dread only grows, right until he re-delivers the first line of the monologue, a bitterly ironic “Here. Let me help you.” Already knowing how the monologue ends, Snyder is able to quickly shift the focus over to Abby, who we now know is even more helpless than she realizes. A new sense of dread builds from there, but is jaggedly cut-off by the cliff-hanger of Anton’s arrival.
That creeping sense of dread is enhanced immensely by Francesco Francavilla’s incredibly moody art. His assured line, knack for gore, and — most importantly — brooding sense of color give the issue the look and feel of a classic horror film. The sense of heat and claustrophobia are palpable from the very first page:
That blood-red is repurposed as the flames and sunsets that light the rest of the issue, which again adds to the uncomfortable dread this issue wallows in. The only respite is the image of the young Parliament of Trees, which seem to be their own source of light.
The through-line of what happens to Alec is so engrossing, it’s almost possible to overlook how compelling Abby’s story is here; we learn from Anton that Abby used her own abilities to accidentally kill her mother when she was only an infant. She has been running from her “destiny” ever since, hoping to hide herself amongst the Green. This idea is conveyed beautifully in a gorgeous double-page spread.
Abby is literally speeding from her past as she drives from the devastation of the desert. When the dead deer raises its head, tears well in her eyes as she starts to fear that the Rot may well be her destiny. What gives her hope, what gives her the strength to continue, are the growing, flowering vines Alec has sent climbing around the truck. It’s a powerful moment, conveyed with a brilliant sense of space and time.
Snyder brilliantly undercuts that sense of hope by turning right around to show Anton’s apparent death blows to Alec, which seems to suggest the futility of Abby’s struggle against the Rot. It’s a daring theme that is only slightly undercut in its own right by our knowledge that Alec will surely recover from whatever was done to him in the swamp. Anton may well know this, and is only counting on having enough time to collect Abby before Alec emerges, but it’s ironic that — because this is a comic, where good always looses to evil — his own struggles against the destiny will also prove futile.
Shelby: Reading this book is like having a nightmare. The lurid red sky that prevails throughout sets an almost apocalyptic tone that you almost wish you could wake up from, if the story weren’t so compelling. The disorienting wash of red covering the pages of Anton’s monologue to Alec is horrifying, all the more so because the reader has been placed in the position of helpless, hapless victim. Drew, you are totally right, Francavilla’s art gives this book the feel of a 70’s slasher flick; it’s like a storyboard for Friday the 13th meets Sin City. I won’t lie, at first I was disappointed to not see Paquette’s art in this issue. I got over that pretty quickly, though; the art for scene of Baby Abby and her mother is perfect. The juxtaposition of the apple-cheeked and cherubic baby with desiccated corpse of her mother is incredible.
That’s not to say the art distracts from the writing at all; Snyder crafted this issue beautifully, especially that monologue. Do you know what is the most terrifying trait in a psychopathic killer? It’s politeness. There is nothing more disarming than a someone who will, very politely, smash in your skull. Anton fusses over Alec like a nurse to a patient: trying to clean up the blood, apologizing for getting overly excited, basically doing everything he could to make Alec comfortable. That is creepy as hell. Reading it made me uncomfortable, and that is awesome. It reminded me a lot of Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof. It’s got the grindhouse gore and 70’s style to it, but it’s quieter. Instead of relying on just the loud, over-the-top shock value of grindhouse, it builds up tension slowly; you end up on the edge of your seat without even realizing it.
For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to DC’s website and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?