Returning from the dead continues to be an ever-growing horror sub-genre, and is no longer limited to vampires and zombies, as witnessed by the burgeoning number of stories featuring people coming back to life relatively unchanged, at least physically. “The Returning” #1 by Jason Starr and Andrea Mutti is the latest such story on the comic book front, joining Image Comics’ “Revival” on the stands, and debuting a week after ABC television’s “Resurrection.” Starr and Mutti’s comic stands out well enough on its own, featuring the sole story of Beth, a high school senior who is pronounced dead after a car accident but shortly thereafter inexplicably wakes up in a hospital bed, crying for help.
Yes, that’s how Beth’s story begins, in a hospital bed, just like Rick Grimes’ did in “The Walking Dead,” and that of Cillian Murphy’s character in “28 Days Later.” It’s a forgivable enough similarity, as the sequence is merely a device to kick off the series. Starr’s premise is intriguing; readers quickly learn that the world is one full of people like Beth who have mysteriously come back to life, and that “normal” people have good reason to be fearful of these “changers.” Starr unveils this knowledge in understated ways, such as the doctor’s seemingly emotionless explanation to Beth about her situation, and the nurses’ contrasting wisecracks about her condition, succinctly establishing the tension and bigotry that exists amongst the general public.
Beth’s father is the character who best exemplifies this attitude, with his darkly comic grilling of Beth’s prom date, with a topical twist. But her father also typifies the one-dimensional nature of many of the comic’s cast; Beth’s date is the typical horny teenage boy, and just about every passer-by seems filled with vitriol and hate, lacking only the pitchforks and torches they need to chase the devils out of the village. Much of the dialogue is flat and wasteful; everything beyond explaining the backdrop and advancing the story is largely small talk, and belabored at that. Lines like “Die in Hell!” just sound a little off.
Mutti struggles a bit as well, largely with facial consistency. Oddly, the first several pages don’t show this disparity, but as the story advances, her technique gets sloppier, and it comes to a point where some characters’ facial features are little more the dark smudges. The car accident sequence isn’t all that difficult to figure out; a car smashes into a tree, which is all readers really need to know; but the panels leading up to that moment don’t really connect everything all that clearly. The subsequent NDE (near-death experience) Beth endures looks more like she’s dancing with ghostly apparitions than being menaced by them.
The biggest problem with the story comes later in the form of Beth’s actions after another tragic event, one that comes after Starr has successfully gotten readers to sympathize with her as the victim. After she makes a seemingly uncharacteristic and selfish decision that undermines everything positive established about her, the reader is taken out of the story emotionally. She goes from being a victim to a fugitive, changing the whole dynamic of the issue, and the final page is a misplaced and gratuitous scene intended to serve as a cliffhanger.
Despite the detour this issue takes near the end, what will bring readers back isn’t this manufactured twist in the story, but rather the idea behind the story itself, which remains compelling. “The Returning” #1 sputters after a decent start, but has just enough promise to stick with future issues.