At some point we’re going take a step back and realise just how good a year 2018 has been for comics. It seems that nearly every week new books are being released that exemplify the best of what this medium is capable of. Each week sees a fresh contender asking new questions and approaching novel ways of storytelling. It’s almost as if the creative force of the industry has been engaged in a long-running game of one-upmanship. For my money, however, Fearscape from the talented team of Ryan O’Sullivan (writer), Andrea Mutti (illustrator), Vladimir Popov (colorist), and Deron Bennett (letterer) is going to be the breakout hit of the year.
The latest collaboration between Vault Comics and the White Noise collective, Fearscape tells the tale of Henry Henry: a professional translator struggling to break into the literary scene as an author in his own right. One night, our protagonist is summoned by the Muse to be humanity’s champion against the darkness that haunts its collective consciousness in the ethereal realm known as the Fearscape. It takes the greatest of storytellers to defeat the otherworldly manifestations of humanity’s greatest fears. Little does the Muse know that she has enlisted the help of an unscrupulous plagiarist. With the fate of the world in the hands of an increasingly unreliable narrator, what could possibly go wrong?
Opening on a blank nine-panel grid that deconstructs the reasons why writers rely on the grid, Fearscape very much begins with a statement of intent. It lets you know early on that it isn’t going to play by the rules. It is an altogether different animal. This bold approach to storytelling permeates throughout the book, subverting the reader’s expectations, and often openly mocking them for it. Henry Henry’s pursuit of “originality” is to be found in the very make-up of the book itself. It lures you into thinking it’s about to slip into the dreaded “formula” it so despises only to reveal that it has been part of the joke all along. Nothing should be taken at face-value. There is always a nagging sense that Fearscape is messing with you because it is, and you’ll love it for it. O’Sullivan possesses a wonderful meta-textual sense of humour that pokes fun at all who flick through its pages. Be it reader, writer, or critic, none are safe from a wit so sharp it’ll cut you just by reading it.
At its core, Fearscape is a book about creatives and their eccentricities. Henry Henry comes from the same tradition of down on their luck writers as Orwell’s George Comstock and is equally morally bankrupt. Both decry others for their inability to make any meaningful progress in their respective writing careers, yet neither seem capable of completing work. They lament the state of the literary world and the success of accessible writing. Henry is the kind of guy who uses ten words when one will do whilst in the same breath criticising the lyrical abilities of others. This snobbery should repulse us, but there is something so endearing and entertaining about Henry. Through his narration Henry welcomes us as a “dear friend”, someone with whom he can confide. It’s easy to be taken in by the lies, half-truths, and justifications. These moments prove to be some of the funniest the book has to offer as they reveal the hypocrisy that Henry himself can’t seem to grasp. It is no wonder he makes a close-friend of Arthur Proctor, a vastly more successful genre writer, notwithstanding Henry’s own distain for “that sort of thing”. We shouldn’t like Henry, but part of you hopes that he can learn to be better and, at the same time, realises the folly of doing so. Henry plays to the anxieties and insecurities of creators, he is the realisation that their only limits are ones that they themselves create.
There is something reinvigorating about a book that relishes its literary roots. Fearscape is full of references to the classics with knowing nods to Kafka’s The Metamorphosis and Nabokov’s Lolita for keen-eyed observers. Yet their inclusion is not there to simply add another feather in the creative team’s cap. Instead it plays a discrete purpose within the narrative. It establishes the world of words to which Henry Henry longs to belong. The reverence, or lack thereof, which our protagonist attaches to the authors of old shows the superiority he feels towards them. The book further highlights the misuse and misunderstand of literature that is all too present in society. Much like the best of Frasier the pomp on display is not vindicated as a virtue, but forms part of the satire itself. It’s evidence of an incredibly well-read creative team that know how to use their literary vocabulary to the fullest potential and get a few laughs out of it.
Mutti’s art exalts magical and the mundane in equal measure. It needs to be in a book such as this. His portrayal of characters tells you everything you need to know about them just from a glance. Everything from the way Mutti dresses Henry Henry to his body language suggests a man drifting through life. Tonally, he gives the book a dreamlike quality even before our protagonist enters the titular Fearscape. However, once Henry enters the realm of imagination, Mutti is left to engage in more surrealist exercises, ably assisted and bolstered by Popov’s colours. The result is a book that has the look and texture of a watercolour painting. Flashbacks take on a grainy, aged film feel. Purple hues and overwhelming yellows serve to shake our perception of reality in the Fearscape. In contrast, greys and blues dominate the real world, grounding it. Comparisons to the seminal Sandman will be in plentiful supply, but that speaks as much to its ability to convincingly transport us to another plane and not just the book’s desire to explore our relationship to mythology. Together, Mutti and Popov achieve something quite rare indeed. They make an ethereal realm tangible.
Bennett’s work on this issue is proof positive of the power of good lettering. It is an underappreciated element of the craft of creating comics and Fearscape demonstrates how it can bolster the reading experience. With a book as caption-heavy as this one placement is everything. Panels may sometimes seem crowded, but only because they are meant to be so. Bennett uses and abuses space to accentuate the characterisation and ideas being explored. Henry Henry’s overly verbose nature is presented in captions boxes framed as entries in his own personal diary, unrefined and unstable. It feeds into our unwillingness to trust him. In contrast, there is a solidity and certainty to the manner in which the Muse’s dialogue and captions are presented that lends truth to her words. How their thoughts and feelings are presented is as important as what they are saying. Fearscape should quieten those who see lettering as a purely mechanical process. This is a book that shows lettering to be as central to the art and story as anything else.
Fearscape is a captivating book about the magic of fiction and the power it holds over us. Moreover, it is a book about the whos, hows and whys of creating art. It lampoons just as much as it uplifts the creative in us all. It’s outrageously hilarious at times which only serves to let the poignant moments cut deeper. O’Sullivan, Mutti, Popov, and Bennet look at the tradition established by romantic Vertigo, but rather than play a cover opt to take the lessons learned and create their own kind of story. From its inaugural outing alone, it is sure to be a perennial hit. We need more intelligent, witty, and bold stories like Fearscape. You’ll be re-reading this for years to come.
Fearscape #1 will be available in all good comics shops from 26th September and is published by Vault Comics.
A review copy was kindly provided by the writer.