The horror genre is extremely popular since the early days of comics. Within horror, there are many subcategories, an array of different narratives telling different types of twisted and unsettling stories; psychological; ghost stories; body horror. Steve Niles has turned his hand to a range of subsections, with 30 Days of Night being one of the most famous. In his new title, published by Image Comics, he works with artist Szymon Kudranski to bring you the birth of a new world in A Town Called Terror.
On the surface, the comic looks like a homage to classic horror movies from the 1950s and 1960s with a modern flair reminiscent of 30 Days of Night. There is a sense of Hammer House of Horror about the project, and no one would be surprised if Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee played the lead characters. But such a comparison is a little unfair and a touch misleading. Judging the cover does not give you a real sense of the story inside, aside from the apparent horror story vibe. Niles and Kudranski mix influences and build a bridge between old-world terrors and futuristic horror. The result is occasionally off-putting, but it is an exciting and surprising read for the most part.
Employing a mix of dense panels, numbering up to thirteen on some pages, and large double-page spreads, the opening of A Town Called Terror sets the tone for the narrative that follows. Niles leaves the first five pages virtually speechless, allowing the blood-red colors and heavily shadowed artwork by Kudranski to lead the story. The design of the opening, with the credits spread across several pages, feels like a 1980’s television mini-series introduction; think of The Stand. It’s not difficult to imagine Blue Oyster Cult’s (Don’t Fear) The Reaper playing over the top, although the strip informs the reader that the protagonist is listening to Bach.
This small detail is essential because it highlights the combination of classic and modern at the heart of A Town Called Terror. The opening has narrative elements similar to scenes from Frankenstein while being presented in a contemporary pandemic aesthetic. The eerie atmosphere of a Gothic castle laboratory is combined with a high-tech medical facility, thus drawing on a range of horror tropes from across the board. Niles does not limit himself but instead uses broad strokes to introduce the story and leave the reader uncertain where the narrative will go.
The artwork combines classic and modern visuals, mixing heavy shading and limited color with heavily detailed inking. There are hints of Tales From The Crypt buried in The Empty Man-style renderings. However, the impression that this first issue gives is of a modern-day story told for fans of classic horror.
Art and Story
A Town Called Terror is soaked in horror tropes. It is overwhelmed with imagery and cliches at some points as if all the props from a cinematic franchise had been put into a single set. However, the beauty of Niles’ tongue-in-cheek scripting and Kudranski’s commitment to engaging visuals means that the overloaded pages never feel cluttered or superfluous. The solid conviction of the creators gives the impression of importance to every aspect of the comic. The atmosphere is built around striking gothic visuals and the intense use of red, being virtually the only color present throughout the comic. These visual elements feedback into the narrative, giving the script and the outlandish story some weight.
There are moments where you want to laugh at the ridiculousness of the cliches, but Kudranski’s art makes these moments particularly unsettling. His page layouts and the design of the panel borders are a constant encroachment on the reader’s safety as they aren’t presented in an expected way. The panel borders are often rough and jagged, breaking into several panels like unwelcome intruders. Adding to this unease are the wonderfully macabre lettering decisions by Scott O. Brown and Marshall Dillon. The sound effects appear scratched across the surface of the comic, and the speech contains visual inflections that give the presence and personality of the characters.
There isn’t much in the way of character development on offer in this first issue because the emphasis is on atmosphere and tone. That’s not to say that the characters aren’t interesting, and there is definite growth potential. It is simply that characters are not the focus. Instead, as he often does, Niles is setting up a world for the readers to drop into. It is a world containing mystery, horror, and most importantly, unpredictability.
The problem with playing with broad sections of a genre, blending and mixing them together, is that your audience actually decreases in size. A comic like A Town Called Terror will not appeal to a large readership because it asks a lot from its readers. You have to be versed in the genre, knowledgeable of horror comic history and, to a large extent, the cinematic equivalent, and also be able to see past the surface imagery to the creator’s intent buried beneath. This comic looks like a cheap demonic Hammer House of Horror knock-off or Stephen King-inspired suburban nightmare, but there is so much more depth to Niles and Kudranski’s tale of terror.
A Town Called Terror is a playful jibe at horror while also being a loving homage to the genre. If you wish to ride the surface story, you’ll find an enjoyable romp stuffed with humorous cliches and tongue-in-cheek scripting. But if you care to dig a little deeper, there is a wealth of exciting references, callbacks, adoptions of ideas, and clever artistic treats. Niles manages to find just the right collaborators to bring out the best in his work, and A Town Called Terror is a testament to that. Kudranski, Brown, and Dillon take the script and elevate it to a worthwhile addition to the annals of horror comic history. I am sure it is a title that will be discussed at length in future publications.