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Emily Carroll's Through the Woods is the Best Comic I've Read All Year

By which I mean Daaaaaaag. This was freaking scary.  I peed a little bit, and I am not ashamed.  This book is pee-scary .

It all starts innocently enough...

Like a fairy tale. A girl goes to stay with her brother over Christmas break. Kids are home alone while their father goes hunting. "There was a girl. There was a man."

What's interesting about these stories is that, as terrifying as they end up, they're all slow burns.  There's none of the  pre-credit jump scares you get from Nightmare Haloween part XVI.  There's a grandpa-telling-fairy-tales vibe about the stories in this anthology.  I'd go so far as to call the above image  cute, and even a little bit sweet.  There's nothing about 'en that indicates greater-than-Disney levels of violence and terror. There's something very - God, what's the word I'm looking for - CANADIAN about them.

Until

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                                                                      AHHHHHH!

                                         Did you pee too?   That is the only logical response.

And then I am sleeping with the nite-lite on for a week.  Through the Woods is, in some ways, a horror anthology in the classic EC style.  (But with more emphasis on design and fewer walls of text.)  There are five stories here, with an introduction and a conclusion.  Carroll dedicates this book about possession, the living dead and creatures waiting in the dark to eat you to her parents, which is oddly sweet.

Now, granted, I'm a little behind on this one -  Kelly and Sue reviewed it a year ago . (It is hard to keep current when you write one post every three years.  Pity the lazy man!)

But what the hell.

It's almost Halloween!

So what I wanted to do is try to pull these tales apart a little bit and see how they work.  If you can analyze what scares you it loses it's power and you save money not buying clean sheets every day.

There are a couple things that Carroll is really good at, and the most important of those is controlling the tone. You know that something nasty is coming, but the relatively pleasant set-ups always, always, ALWAYS disarm you, even though the last four stories freaked-you-right-the-crap-out.  "Look at that plump wife!"  You say.  "THIS one ain't gonna be so bad."

HA!

The bait and switch between the Canadianess of the beginning and end leechmonsteriness is akin to driving the knife in and then twisting it.   These aren't gore drenched torture porn, but they are nasty little stories, and that is the highest compliment I can give a horror book.

Carroll's other strength is absolute control of the form. The lettering, the coloring, the design of the pages, the size of the panels... all of it means something, all of it is designed to enhance the finished product. Let's break down a sample page.  Let's start with a big 'un, from "A Lady's Hands are Cold" the second story in the book.

Notice what she's doing with space here. The twisty turny design of the road conveys movement AND it gives a sense of a long distance being travelled.  It also makes the mansion at the end of the road look BIG, and it does so without actually containing a big drawing of a mansion.  (This is hard to do.)   Also the coloring doubles down on the spooky mood and feeling of anticipation.  The blue road makes the white horse and carriage POP! off page... and the solid. black. forest and splotches of blood red foliage give a little bit of foreshadowing as to what's about to go down.

Hint: In order to avoid spoilers I will give you three possible options about future events in this story, but only two are true:

(A) Murder

(B) The vengeful dead

(C) A hilarious talking dog named Captain Butterbeans teaches us how to love. 

I trust that only the most intellectually gifted among you will be able to figure out my clever ruse.

When Kelly reviews Through the Woods on the "Three Chicks Review Comics" podcast she talks about the lettering, which wasn't something I paid a lot of attention to on my first  read through.

But da-a-a-a-a-a-mn Kelly is  right.  This is, like, Cerebus, level lettering awesomeness.  (A) It's creatively placed so that it becomes a cool design element within the page.  (B)  These are not Garfield style word balloons.  This is not *shudder* comic sans.  It's Fancy lettering, and it's pretty-to-look-at  in and of itself.  (C)  It's a little difficult to immediately find the second chunk of text after you read the first one... which means that you are staying, lingering on the page...  and the story is creatively building up tension.

That was a good BEFORE picture... let's take a look at a page from a little later in the story...

Three Points:

1)   YOU SEE WHY I CAN"T SLEEP WITHOUT MY BINKY ANY MORE?!  NOW YOU SEE?!

2)   Let's just marvel at how deftly the flashback is incorporated into the page. This page is one image depicting events that take place over multiple  time periods, yet it's completely clear what's happening. Also notice how Carroll shares my love of USING ALL CAPITAL LETTERS TO MAKE YOUR WRITING SUPER AWESOME!

3)  You notice that Carroll is repeating a lot of motifs on the two pages.  There's the same pallet of colors being used, the same wavy, curly shapes driving (or horse and buggy-ing) the narrative along on both pages.  Carroll is defining a specific set of rules about how the story works, and by consistently observing and repeating these themes, she's building a coherent and immsersive world.

Horror is a monster.  It has to catch you and keep you for it to work.  If you escape and think about your Aunt Sue's wedding or where you left your keys, it loses a lot of power.  So creating full audience immersion is the most important part of being scary.   You gotta keep the victims trapped.

 

 

Carroll also has a nifty web-site with quite a few stories on it, but most of the work in this book is original for print.And some of her web stuff simply couldn't be translated into print.   Margot's Room is set-up like one of those room escape games where you have to click around a static image to get the next chapter of the story.  (P.S.  COOL!!  Isn't that a cool idea?  Cool!)

This is my favorite comic I've read this year.  (And I read a lot of comics.)  This is my favorite horror comic ever.  (And I've read a lot of horror comics.)  So if you're in the mood for something not just spooky but pee-spooky this is a damn good bet.

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