Publisher: Dark Horse Comics
Writers: Zack and Nick Keller
Artists: Joanna Estep, Kelly Fitzpatrick
Release Date: Issue #1 out now; issue #2 out 19th August 2015
Horror in comics is tricky – there’s good reason that it’s only recently that it’s begun to gain significant traction, but thankfully, we’re in something of a renaissance, with a whole host of titles flooding our way. Dark Horse do seem, as a publisher, to be rather more prolific than others at putting this stuff out (it’s in the name, I guess?), and here we have Death Head, their latest attempt to scare us silly through the medium of sequential art.
To sum it up pithily – as is my wont – it’s as if Friday the 13th had a baby with Paranormal Activity, then raised it on good old fashioned rural horror. Initially presenting three seemingly disparate threads – a couple on a walk in a national park, a little kid offering ALL his Lego (shocking, I know) to the stuttering fool bullying him, and a teenage rebel stuck in a nunnery – it’s slowly but surely revealed that they’re not as disconnected as they first seem, with each one representing a point on the vast spectrum of psychological horror (to wit: existential, supernatural, and sociopathic). The Kellers do a great job of weaving the stories together, and between them, they’ve an uncanny knack for the rendering of how kids talk to each other, even if it’s occasionally rather more sweary than it needs to be. That’s not to say that the grown-ups don’t sound grown-up – it’s just that there’s a curious joy about reading kids who sound like kids. It’s not an easy thing to do, and praise must be given for it.
There’s some great work going on in the art from Estep and Fitzpatrick too – very much penciler and colourer in sync. Whilst there’s some mild inconsistency in character rendering – it’s not immediately clear that the nature-walking couple from the first issue are the parents in the second – the scene setting is terrifically atmospheric, particularly in the darker corners of the Kellers’ story. A page that immediately springs to mind as a stand-out is in the middle of issue 2, with an impactful hallucination that feels like it’s been torn straight out of the likes of the Wicker Man (y’know. The good one. Without BEEEEEES). It’s also another moment where I’m seriously impressed with the rendering of hands – particularly in the fact that Estep has clear opportunities to just trace over previous panels, and quite simply doesn’t. Beautiful stuff.
If there is criticism that can be levelled at the story, it’s that for a horror-mystery story, it’s loaded with mystery, but somewhat light on the horror. There are a good couple of moments scattered throughout these two issues, but I’m not yet dreading the next story beats, which I really should be at this stage. Even reading the issues back to back, the Kellers are struggling to mount an appropriate level of tension across the book as a whole – individual scenes do so successfully (particularly an encounter in an underground crematorium), but it dissipates all too quickly, and whilst this doesn’t hurt the strength of their world-building, it does leave us readers slightly wanting. That’s not to say that there’s not still hope for unsettling things to come – issue 2 has given the story threads a good old wrench together, and once the second act commences with issue 3, I can just about smell the intriguing and terrifying things to come.
Ultimately, despite that minor pitfall, the series is solid, entertaining stuff, though it’s still very much in the foundation stages of the house of cards construction, and I may well end up eating the above criticism come the conclusion. But that’s for next month’s issue to spring on us, and so for now…
The Writer of this piece was: Ross Sweeney
Ross tweets from @Rostopher24