Both Scott Snyder and Sean Murphy are known quantities in comics. Snyder has overhauled “Batman” into one of the most commercially and critically successful superhero comics of today, while also publishing successful horror tales like “American Vampire” and “Severed” at Vertigo and Image. Murphy has shown off his work in books like “Hellblazer” and an “American Vampire” mini-series, but truly came into the public conciousness last year with the highly-lauded “Punk Rock Jesus”. So it’s no surprise that the first issue of “The Wake” is excellent.
It’s very difficult to judge an ongoing series or mini-series based on the first issue. It’s an idea I raised before when discussing the debut of “East of West” and one I’d like to follow up on. A lot of reviews for this debut issue mention concepts of theme and characterization. Although there are hints at where the story is going, claims like ” Each character seems to have lived an entire life, bringing a rich history and unique perspective…” are severely overstated. That’s like saying Nite Owl and Rorschach are fully developed characters after reading one issue of “Watchmen”. It’s a claim that is, although true, based on spurious evidence. The best things about this issue are not the big ideas, themes, or characters. Each of those have a great deal of potential, but are not developed yet in the first 10% of the story. The thing to take away from this title is the craftsmanship of the artists in question.
To start, let’s take a look at Snyder’s story. The story is laden with classic horror tropes. A hero both fighting for their family and holding a dark secret, a team of experts in various fields, a government agency with an unlimited budget; it’s all standard fare. That’s not to say the story is bad, just to point out that Snyder manages to use these tropes in a story that still feels exciting and new. A large part of that is the effectiveness with which it is told in comics form, but that will be addressed with what Murphy and Hollingsworth bring to the table. Snyder’s biggest contribution lies with how he frames the tale. It opens two hundred years in the future and closes more than two thousand years in the past. This framing adds both an increased sense of scope and stakes. The relatively subtle references to a larger threat scene in the final panel of each framing story, expand the book. This is not just a cabin in the woods scenario (although if you have not scene the film, you really should). It is something based in human history that will have grave repercussions in the future. It provides a sense of importance to the central narrative and the characters within. It is a break from a classic failing of the horror genre, wherein the story is self-contained and does not impact anyone besides often tedious characters (not to say Snyder’s characters come off as tedious, I’m already invested).
Although I really enjoyed the introduction to this tale, it’s the art that makes this issue standout. Murphy toes a careful line between realism and more visceral nature of comics. His leads could all be cast as a dozen different Hollywood actors or actresses, because they generally fall into very archetypal roles. Personalities are as clearly defined by appearance, as they are by dialogue or actions in the first issue. Meeks appears to be a mysterious loner, while Agent ??? seems a no-nonsense with nothing to prove. That’s not to say that his drawings are cartoonish, merely that they are descriptive.
The layouts also add a great deal. Many of the horizontal page designs are presented earlier in the book wherein there is a wide, open ocean and no looming threats. Murphy has always been good at structuring lots of these sprawling panels, which are non-typical at most mainstream publishers. The vertical pages are used to great effect, becoming more dominant as the story takes a darker tone. When the woman in the future is forced to flee in an abandoned city or the submarine sinks into the ocean, the vertical page is used to close around the largest scenes, capturing them in an almost claustrophobic layout. I have no doubt this will be used to even greater effect as the story continues and tension mounts.
The color palette, created by Matt Hollingsworth, has a significant impact on the story as well. While above the ocean, the colors vary a great deal, but settle into burnt sun-like oranges and other warm tones. The story shifts dramatically every time it goes underwater. Cold, ice-like blues permeate panels below the ocean, in the submarine, and the final reveal of the present story. They establish a tone of bleak isolation, which could not be accomplished outside of a visual medium. It elevates the effects of Snyder’s plotting far above what they could accomplish purely as prose.
I will make one small detraction from Murphy’s drawings though. His character work is remarkably similar to that of “Punk Rock Jesus”. The government spook in “The Wake” bears a striking resemblance to one of the greatest characters of 2012, the ex-IRA bodyguard, Thomas McKael.
If you haven’t read “Punk Rock Jesus”, you won’t even notice it, but it does leave some room for improvement, if you’ve followed Murphy’s career.
Together, Snyder and Murphy are looking to create a helluva good comic. The story has a lot of potential and already displays Snyder’s grasp of the genre (if “Death of the Family”, “American Vampire”, and “Severed” weren’t enough to convince you). Yet it’s his pairing with Murphy that drives every point home. The color palette, horizontal juxtapositions, and careful sequencing of scenes all help drive the tone of this book home. I don’t know how “The Wake” will turn out and what the ultimate take aways will be. I’ll need nine more issues (if you didn’t know, it’s a ten issue series) to tell. However, I have been assured that it will be a very enjoyable piece of comics literature. The creators are comfortable working within the medium and don’t mind showing off. I’d recommend checking this out, lest you miss out on something great.