Greg: There was a constant problem in the percussion section of my high school band. Whenever we had concerts, it meant lugging lots of heavy equipment from our band room to our auditorium; the tympani, in particular, were awkward beasts of burden. Thus, when the concerts ended and us student musicians were worn out and ready to leave, it was too easy to duck out immediately, leaving the percussion in the auditorium without putting it back. This infuriated my band teacher, as he vowed to punish those who left early (in a full tux, no less). My response, as a habitual people-pleaser, was to take on the task myself, tirelessly hauling equipment to and fro, until the status quo was kept normalized. If it was that easy for me to seriously fall in line over something as silly as “moving percussion equipment”, The Woods 3 shows that I would’ve been a person of concern if monsters ever came to town.
The issue opens with a speech that hits notes we’ve heard before — you can’t let fear win, you must stand tall together, there will be no more deaths tonight. Yet an ominous mentioning of a “disciplinary committee” followed by a smash cut to a dark jail cell where Corbin smashes Katie over the head just for “not listening” shows in no uncertain terms how quickly Bay Point has crumbled. Meanwhile, a group of six kids are in the titular woods, braving the bright blue monsters, and discovering that they track the smell of pheromones as a primary hunting technique. The issue ends on three big cliffhangers: a talk of revolution amongst the school, a discovery of a cryptic pyramid in the woods, and an incorrect assumption that “the worst is over now.”
In our contemporary world of storytelling where ambiguity, mystery, and understatement are often the most celebrated techniques, I’m pleasantly surprised by how blunt writer James Tynion IV is in exploring this world gone amok. This is a story where unsure plans of what to do next are undercut by a young main character literally punching a monster in the goddamn face. A story where, when describing how corrupt the people in charge have become, a character literally uses the phrase “absolute power,” trusting us to fill in the rest. A story where points of satire, symbolism, and social critique are spelled out explicitly by allusions to Animal Farm, assertions of the necessity of total order, and an indignant insistence that “this isn’t a game, this is our lives.”
Beyond its setting, characters, and evocations of required reading, this issue’s bluntness took me right back to the emotional mindframe of high school. Our teenage years are times of dramatic change, of strong and passionate opinions, of intense formative influence. Coach Clay knows this, and uses it for wrong as he all-too-easily forms his violent and stubborn disciplinary committee. It all feels earned, though, given how swirled and transient a high schooler’s mind is without the added twist of monsters. I know that I craved and found order in the form of the arts, spending much of my extracurricular time in bands, choirs, orchestras, and theatres. It stands to reason that some of the students of Bay Point crave order in the form of the disciplinary committee (and, it could be argued, even the hypothetical revolution alluded to at the end).
For me, the most nourishing science, speculative, and genre fiction works not just as a pie-in-the-sky, “look at how weird and crazy these monsters are” piece of fun, but as a jumping off point to exploring how humans react to extreme circumstances in a relatable way. To that effect, Tynion’s work is almost too successful, as I find myself caring much more about the intensity of the monstrous Bay Point politics than I do about the actual monsters. There are a number of possible reasons for this nitpicky disparity that range from personal bias (I’ve always had a predilection for stories involving the monstrosities of humanity) to qualitative narrative analysis (the school conflicts are perhaps more nuanced than the monster conflicts), but it ultimately speaks to the strength of Tynion and his ability to amplify the nature of humans amongst monsters running rampant in nature.
What do you think, Spencer? Did this high school tale of monsters earn an A+ or should it stay after class? And what do you make of Michael Dialynas and Josan Gonzalez’s beautifully wonky artwork, particularly the otherworldly blues and purples of the monstrous woods?
Spencer: Oh no, Greg, I totally agree with you about that A+ — The Woods definitely deserves gold stars all around. I too appreciate Tynion’s bluntness with the subject matter; it would be all too easy for this book to be propelled by constant mystery, but while The Woods certainly has a number of unanswered questions in play, they aren’t the selling point. What defines the title is the way the characters react to the events around them, the way the fight for survival is changing them.
Or, perhaps it isn’t changing them as much as it’s bringing out their true colors. Take Coach Clay, for example.
Clay is most definitely trying to survive, but notice the favoritism he’s showing; unlike Adrian, who cherry-picked the recruits who could help him best reach his goals when he selected his crew for the trek into the woods, Clay is interested in protecting his favorite students above all others, and doing so puts a smug, sadistic grin on his face. Clay has strong opinions about who actually “matters” at Bay Point, and their current circumstances gives him the perfect opportunity to seize power and run the school the way he’s likely been imagining doing it for his entire career.
Notice also, though, the tears in Corbin’s eyes in the above image. As much as he’s a jerk who beat up Katie, it’s obvious that he’s also a scared kid who may even feel guilty about his actions, but is latching onto the deluded rhetoric of his coach in order to survive and make sense of his surroundings — in his own way he’s as much of a victim as Katie or Maria is, being used as a tool to further Clay’s twisted agenda.
The struggle to survive also brings Adrian’s darker tendencies into focus, showing that he’s willing to leave his only friend to die if it means getting a chance to continue his mission. Adrian is certainly less overtly hostile than Clay, but given how quickly he leaves Isaac behind and how little that seems to bother him, he might end up being just as dangerous.
Fortunately, the other students seem to have much greater potential, despite their precarious situation. Pushed to her limit, Sanami has learned to do something she’d only seen performed before, and Calder’s found an outlet for his energy that’s much more productive than his antics back at Bay Point (stabbing monsters will still be a worthless talent there, of course, but for now it’s essential). Ben, meanwhile, is finally forced to take action and use his great strength (by punching a giant blue monster in the face!), and in the short-term, he’s rewarded for it.
The only character I’m unsure about is Karen. I don’t think we’ve seen who she really is, and in fact, her journey will probably be all about discovering her worth and potential. The first issue showed us that Karen was unsure of her future, having neglected to even apply for college, and it’s that desire to take control of her future that seems to have Karen so fixated on accompanying Adrian’s group. She’s out to take action and prove herself, and while I believe Karen’s a good person, there’s certainly room for things to go bad with that agenda.
Of course, things are pretty bad already, aren’t they? Ben’s “reward” seems moot as three monsters loom over his shoulder; likewise, Maria finally has the platform for her leadership that she’s always wanted, but only because she’s been imprisoned and has to raise a rebellion against her teachers. This is grizzly stuff for teenagers to face (adults too, for that matter), and Tynion never backs down from showing the harsh realities of this situation; I don’t think the survival of any character is guaranteed, and that’s what makes this book so harrowing, as Tynion has me immensely invested in each and every one.
As Greg mentioned, Dialynas and Gonzalez are doing some exceptional work on The Woods as well. Dialynas’ art is “blunt” in the same way Tynion’s writing is; he doesn’t play around with fancy layouts but instead presents all the action in a straight-forward way that doesn’t distract from the story. Dialynas’ characters are remarkably expressive, especially in close-up shots, where Dialynas uses extra lines and detail to better create their emotions or the damage they’ve taken in their adventures. Essentially, Dialynas excels at making the book’s more mundane scenes sing, but he’s just as good at depicting the alien world — be it the grotesque lesions on Calder’s arm or the alien beasts that straddle the line between terrifying and adorable — as well as the action. Calder stabbing the beast, for example, is a heroic moment, but Dialynas doesn’t play it up, showing us that, despite being effective, it’s still the desperate last-ditch effort of an injured teenager. In contrast, Ben’s attack looks much more dynamic; Dialynas takes advantage of the hype that’s been built around Ben’s strength but doesn’t allow the action to become unrealistic.
Gonzalez, meanwhile, saturates the entire book with rich color, especially adding depth to the scenes in the school. His colors are also essential in establishing the alien world’s “alienness” — the woods just look like any old woods at first, but the purple ground and trees immediately make the backgrounds look all the more foreign. The same goes for the turquoise monsters.
I also love Gonzalez’s tendency to fill blank backgrounds in with brighter colors, less muted red and oranges and yellows as seen in the second and third panels of the image above. It helps these panels stand-out, especially against the slightly more somber colors of the backgrounds and characters, without ever being so bright as to cause distraction.
Honestly, the creative team behind The Woods launched right out of the gate with a strong creative vision of what this book should be, and so far their vision is winning me over hook, line, and sinker. I feel like there’s something in this book for everyone, be it the smartly defined, distinct characters or the mysteries and dangers of the woods or the more human conflict between the students and the faculty or simply the charming artwork and moody, evocative coloring. This is one trip into the woods I’m glad I decided to take, although I’m more than happy to just watch from the safety of my own home. As far as I know, there’s no turquoise monsters here.
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 Comixology and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?