David Baillie and Meghan Hetrick’s “Red Thorn” #1 is part of Vertigo’s big relaunch, as they continue to unleash new series by a wide variety of creators into the market. “Red Thorn” #1 feels like it’s trying to cut to the chase quickly as to not bore potential readers, but the end result is so compressed it feels as though it’s missing a few storytelling beats that might have smoothed out the experience.
The issue introduces us to Isla Mackintosh, a 20-something American in Scotland looking for clues connected to her sister Lauren that vanished in the area before Isla was born. As we quickly learn, Isla has a strange gift that brings her drawings to life, and Isla and Lauren may very well share more than parents. It’s a solid premise, and I give Baillie a lot of credit for putting as much of this into the first issue as possible. Comics far too often are so focused on the collected edition that they drag out the setup through several of the initial issues, forgetting there’s an audience who expects a good reading experience in the serial format. Baillie clearly wanted to make sure readers got an immediate understanding on what “Red Thorn” was about.
At the same time, though, Baillie’s script actually feels like it’s moving a little too quickly, at the expense of a stronger overall narrative. For example, as soon as Isla mentions her last name Mackintosh, the landlady immediately asks if she’s related to the missing Lauren Mackintosh. The problem is, as we learn two panels later, that was 25 years earlier. Mackintosh is hardly a unique name — especially in Scotland — and it feels ludicrous to immediately jump to such a conclusion. You can see why Baillie does it; it would have taken a few extra panels were Isla to bring it up on her own to the landlady in order to trigger the initial exposition connected to Lauren’s disappearance. This isn’t the only place where it feels like panels were trimmed in order to make room for more material; at one point, the book has a time jump of an entire year in the middle of a page, presumably again as to not waste any space, but it’s awkward and jarring (to say nothing of easy to miss). I appreciate Baillie is trying to move things forward as quickly as possible, but the end result is a story so compressed it often feels truncated.
Hetrick’s art bears no complaints, though. It’s the high point of “Red Thorn” #1, with every character drawn in a graceful, compelling manner. Isla’s hair almost tumbles out of her hat when she first pulls it off, but Hetrick draws it in a controlled manner with a strong ink line without losing any fluidity. It’s a technique that moves throughout the entire book, providing softness while maintaining a strong edge to carefully carve out every character and object on the page. She’s matched well by colorist Steve Oliff, who has a subtlety to his shades as they gently shift from one to the next.
This is especially clear whenever we see Isla’s sketchbook, which needs to come across as slightly looser and less formed as the rest of the art in comic. Hetrick nails this look perfectly; once again, we’re given a strong enough ink so nothing looks wispy or transparent, but Hetrick and Oliff make it look a little sketchy and not quite rooted in reality so that there’s no confusion on what we’re seeing. Some of the little touches are especially nice, like the usage of blue pencils in the sketchbook or the half-formed architecture. It’s unmistakable and I appreciate the care Hetrick and Oliff bring to the comic.
“Red Thorn” is a comic that could have used an oversized first issue, if only to smooth out some of the details in the script while still giving us a lot of plot in the initial helping. There’s enough in the issue’s favor to warrant a second look, but Baillie’s writing needs to allow itself to slow down just a touch, enough so that we’re getting some more details, but not so much that everything grinds to a halt. Fortunately, with art as nice as Hetrick’s, chances are good people will be willing to give it another shot in December. There are some interesting ideas here, and hopefully we’ll see them move forward in a slightly more polished manner before long.