Horror is a genre with a long history in the comics industry and BOOM! Studios is no stranger to the genre. With past hits such as The Empty Man and the recent original graphic novel The Down River People, the publisher has proven that they can pick worthwhile and chilling titles for their readers. This week sees the release of Maw, described by BOOM!’s Executive Editor, Sierra Hahn, as a series that “expertly uses the horror genre to explore gender, identity, hidden trauma.” Promising gruesome horrors, plot twists, and the examination of the beast inside, Maw has a lot to offer; as long as you aren’t too squeamish.
Maw opens with two sisters heading to a women-only retreat on the coast of Virginia. Their taxi driver knows about the retreat and engages the women in conversation. It is through this discussion that the reader is introduced to the characters of the two sisters: their similarities and their differences. At first it is easy to label each woman, with words such as dreamer or cynic. But writer Jude Ellison S. Doyle sets up these labels just to break them down as the story progresses. They make a point of giving these women, and to a small degree the driver, simple traits in the opening to demonstrate how easy it is to characterize individuals. Here are two women who are opposites, positive and negative, and from that you believe that you understand them and their relationship. Doyle would disagree. And as they begin to add depth to the characters, the reader also comes to understand the misjudgment.
There are a number of other characters within the comic who instantly feel like clichés, but their representations are fleeting. We only experience these people through the eyes of the sisters and therefore our impression is distorted. Miranda, the host at the retreat, is almost angelic with her flowing white dress and long golden hair. But this is what Wendy is expecting. She has high hopes that the retreat will help her and she embraces the place and the experience with awe. Marion, her sister, less so. Through her, we see the local nightlife: a slimy bar with ominous visuals in every panel. The contrast between the two places is striking and yet, as both sisters explore each place, there is a darkness underneath both.
What happens next, and the histories that are revealed, is brutal and disturbing. This is a story about rape and the trauma caused by it. The physical torture is only briefly eluded to but the mental and emotional distress is at the heart of the two sisters characters. How they deal with the after effects, the lack of justice, and their relationship, are the central themes of this opening issue and Doyle brings that dynamic to the page magnificently. The conversations between the two women and their reactions to each other are so naturalistic and realistic. By the end of this first issue, the sisters are fully rounded characters and so much more than the initial ‘types’ that Doyle made the readers see in the opening.
Cause and Visual Effect
Outside of the central plot there is a visual disturbance that undermines the serenity of the world that the sisters have entered. It is the use of aspect-to-aspect panel transitions, employed by Artist A. L. Kaplan, that gives the world of Maw it’s uncomfortable undertones. Similar to the build up in Ari Aster’s Midsommar, the tranquility displayed by Miranda, the retreat’s host, is undermined by the often obscure cuts to objects laying on the floor or trinkets hanging in a tree. The significance of these is yet to be explained, but their importance is obvious as they become the focus of several pages, drawing the reader’s eye.
Kaplan’s layouts are wonderful as they set the scene, allowing large panels to illustrate the openness of the landscape while smaller panels focus on close ups of the characters and objects. A large number of the pages have a specific rhythm that allows the story to flow across them. But occasionally, the panel placements are more jarring, helping to visually create a sense of unease without picturing anything that is obviously disturbing. This first issue of Maw is about creating an uneasy feeling caused by something that the readers can’t quite put their fingers on. Similar in style to the current Nicole Kidman starring Amazon Prime television series Nine Perfect Strangers, Maw is displaying a safe space while purposefully undermining it. Kaplan uses compositions that would make you feel uncomfortable in a children’s play park and they pick just the right angles for close up shots that make you distrust the characters.
One of the more striking aspects of Maw is the use of color. Fabiana and Federica Mascolo create impactful contrasts between light and dark throughout the comic. The color sets a tone for each scene, as is instantly seen in the shift from the dark purple and reds of the first page to the clear white and yellows of the second. But, as with everything else in the comic, the tones are undermined by the application of a dark shadow across a figure or small streaks of red through the central object of a panel. There is always an implication of something more underneath the surface representations. This is a comic of layers and this first issue is the top layer with areas of translucency indicating the depths.
The writing in Maw is engaging and allows the story to flow. The art is both beautiful and disturbing, leaving the reader continuously on edge. It deals with difficult subjects in often blunt and direct ways, but this represents the characters perfectly. From a disturbing beginning, Maw never really allows the readers to settle into a safe space, almost contradicting the central location of the story.
There are a number of creators who have recently worked in the modern folk horror genre, people such Alison Sampson, Adam Smith and Matt Fox. And if you enjoy this brand of horror, then you won’t want to miss out on Maw. Making an instant mark with strong storytelling, engaging characters, and stunning visuals, Maw is a massive hook that no reader will be able to wriggle free from.
Writer: Jude Ellison S. Doyle
Artist: A. L. Kaplan
Colors: Fabiana Mascolo/Federica Mascolo
Letters: Cardinal Rae