Joshua Williamson and Mike Henderson’s “Nailbiter” has one very good idea — that of a small town that is the “birthplace of serial killers.” Unfortunately, everything surrounding that idea is less impressive, and the creators instead seem focused on the one gimmicky serial killer that gives the series its name.
The mystery surrounding why so many serial killers have come from this one small town — certainly cannot be a coincidence — is completely intriguing. It suggests interesting questions of nature-versus-nurture that Williamson will hopefully explore more fully. Unfortunately, he has populated his story with broad boring stereotypes, cliches and gimmicky serial killers, none of which add anything particularly interesting or innovative in the service of exploring that one cool idea.
Williamson’s writing is surprisingly clunky and heavy-handed in this first issue, rather than seamless and authentic. Dialogue often feels forced — as if someone is writing “snappy lines” rather than allowing characters to act naturally. There’s no subtext; characters just say exactly what Williamson needs them to in the moment. Lines like, “Did you forget that I can always sense a liar?” are a textbook definition of telling instead of showing. Characters offer no surprises — jocks are jerks, punk-ish girls are whip smart and can take care of themselves, the cute small town local cop is “tough as nails,” etc — even Nailbiter himself (called such because he bites people’s nails off) feels a bit gimmicky, as if he were designed by committee. Though the book technically ends on a cliffhanger, it’s not remotely surprising or unexpected. It’s possible the second issue will subvert expectations, but all signs from the first issue point to the opposite.
There’s a lot to like about Mike Henderson’s art, which is horror-tastic and appropriately unafraid of pushing on the grotesque. Some of the work is really quite gorgeous — he excels at setting a moody stage for the town of Buckaroo and keeps his backgrounds detailed without pulling focus from the larger action. There are also a few story hints in his visuals that are especially well handled — subtle, but clear to any savvy reader. However, there are some basic storytelling issues and character acting flaws that really keep the book from leveling up. Flat and expressionless character acting is the biggest problem, and a few times the facial work actually feels completely wrong for the dialogue.
Most of the storytelling work is good, but some is off enough to jar a reader out of the scene. A fight scene where a girl is being hassled is poorly laid out so that the characters are right on top of one another, but twenty feet apart a panel later, then back to close quarters. This actually happens twice in that same scene, and the whole moment feels confusing and inauthentic.
Adam Guzowski’s colors are also worth a mention as they’re a lovely, appropriately dark and evocative palette, but without ever becoming bogged down or difficult to read. One scene in particular where he gets to cut loose with fire is simply gorgeous in its golden glow. His handling of the rain throughout the book — often a tricky thing for artists and colorists — is really well done.
In the end, though the book has its visual strengths, the poor acting gives it a decided lack of depth, and some of the weaker storytelling choices are jarring. A series exploring the town of Buckaroo and how it has become a birthplace of serial killers — the why, the how, and the very nature and nurture of that phenomenon — would be quite interesting. It’s possible that Williamson intends to focus on the town more than one killer, but what’s presented in “Nailbiter” #1 is not particularly convincing or innovative.