In “The Wake” #4, Scott Snyder and Sean Murphy’s deep ocean mystery twists into visually spectacular survival horror.
After a cryptic two-page opener set 100,000 years in the past, Snyder picks up the story with current events. Most of the merely twenty-page issue is an extended chase scene, but due to Snyder and Murphy’s gifts for suspense, these scenes are full of visual and verbal tension. “The Wake” #4 is structured like horror, but Snyder’s dialogue deepens the predator-prey pursuit into something more, particularly with Marin’s observation, “my lord they bleed.” This is a beautifully poetic, succinct line that goes straight to the heart of certain underpinnings of the horror genre. The first is the basis for the Uncanny Valley hypothesis, which is that few things are creepier or more threatening than something close to human, but not quite. The second is that stories about aliens and other invaders are rooted in displaced fear. Man’s inhumanity to nature and to itself is the real horror.
While the focus of “The Wake” #4 is on the action, Snyder doesn’t neglect characterization, and his dialogue alone is enough to distinguish characters from each other. Murphy’s framing and inks around Meeks foreshadow another problem, which is that one of their own is going to be a problem if they ever get out of this.
The only hiccup in pacing and plot mechanics is when Marin brings up the story of Saeftinghe. In linking their plight to a legend, Marin’s (and thus Snyder’s) attempt to aggrandize and mythologize present events doesn’t quite come off. The connection hasn’t been given enough time and space for this kind of resonance, and the moral comes off as more trite than majestic. More to the point, the role of the myth in the plot feels manufactured. Saeftinghe is shoehorned in so that Archer can have an “Eureka!” moment and save the day in a ticking bomb situation.
However, the method of salvation is ingenious, and allows Sean Murphy to really outdo himself on the art. Snyder does justice to the themes he raises about humanity, fear and guilt, and Murphy creates a visual tone that matches these ambitions, producing images that are poetic and eerie in the middle of breakneck action. Murphy’s panel compositions are distracting in a good way, adapting to the script organically. His heavy inks and fine lines are aided by Matt Hollingsworth’s colors in creating an underwater atmosphere that feels exciting and claustrophobic. Murphy is keenly aware of negative space and the flow of light and bodies through water.
Murphy’s approach to the ocean echoes the space age of science fiction in its awe and reverence of the beauty of dark, endless space and the shock and thrill of the unknown. The last “chapter” of “The Wake” #4, named “Ascent,” is a spectacular narrative and visual climax. One page in particular is gorgeous. A sonic explosion creates a fissure into threadlike, concentric circles on the left, and on the right, clusters of descending creatures bodies droop like flower petals sinking into a lake.
The cliffhanger ending to “The Wake” #4 seems to come out of left field, but it’s a fitting twist, reminding readers about one of the oldest rules of the ocean: there are always bigger fish. There are monsters that feed on monsters, and humans themselves are sometimes such creatures. “The Wake” is excellent, layered fiction, with unpredictable angles and a satisfying depth within the folds of its enjoyable thrills and chills.