AfterShock Comics have taken the mantle of Vertigo in producing high-quality comics for maturer audiences from the crude satire of Jimmy’s Bastards to grim re-imagining of Arthurian legend in Unholy Grail. With The Normals, writer: Alan Glass and artist:Dennis Calero, bring us the publisher’s take on the psychological thriller as seen through a contemporary sci-fi lens. At its heart, The Normals is a book about our perception of reality, how it shapes us and how we copes with that reality being undermined by external factors. Does the series have what it takes to get live up to its high concept premise or will it become eclipsed by its own potential.
AfterShock Comics pitches The Normals as a man whose life as he knew it never happened and who now must struggle to determine what his reality truly is. Indeed, without going into spoilers that quest for one’s identity and sense of meaning is central to the story, but the book leaves us with a sense that the revelation that incites these events might have been better borne out over a few issues. From a pacing perspective, taking into account potential revelations in future issues, the mystery behind the series has been revealed too soon for it to have any true impact. The suspense itself is thrilling in the moment, but the book never allows its central question or mystery to linger in our minds. Instant gratification may satiate our desire to know, but at the expense of the story itself. Which is a shame because outside of the clunky expository sections, the characters feel quite substantial and human in their interactions. Their dialogue is natural and flows in a way that many other comics struggle with. Glass has expertly built a family of characters that we care about, but the importance they place on solving the book’s core mystery never translates to the audience. We care for them, if not their plight.
From an art perspective, The Normals impresses smooth visuals that lull the reader into a false sense of security. In refraining from engaging in hyper-stylized visual or overly complicated techniques, Calero channels the mundanity of suburbia into every panel. From the artwork alone its clear that there is some unsettling about this brand of middle-class life even before The Normal’s more fantastical elements. A neighbour’s kind wave or plastic smile has hidden meaning and Calero manages to convey that unspoken artificiality to those interactions. As the series’ more sci-fi element begin to emerge, it will be interesting to see if the art evolves to match the family’s new understanding of reality as their seemingly normal life unravels around them. A tonal and stylistic shift of that nature could resonate well with the book’s thematic goals if executed properly.
The Normals is the kind of story that The Twilight Zone used to invoke an inherent unease about the reality around you and leaves you questioning many of the assumptions we make about the world. A tale in which the world as you know it seems to have changed utterly and yet you are the only one to notice. Suspenseful thrillers of the kind inevitably instill intrigue in their readers, but it is often that the build-up is more satisfying than the revelation itself. Fortunately, The Normals doesn’t fall wholly into that trap. It manages to successfully recall the sinister undertones of the best psychological horror stories, even if it does not radically bring anything new to the table.