“Thumbprint” #1 by Joe Hill, Jason Ciaramelia and Vic Malhotra begins a psychological horror story about the long shadow of personal guilt and the complex nature of evil.
The mini-series is a comics adaptation of Hill’s prose novella, “Thumbprint,” first released by HarperCollins in October 2012. Ciaramelia was also Hill’s collaborator on the Eisner-nominated miniseries “The Cape,” also adapted from Hill’s prose, and their teamwork has produced similarly excellent results in this case.
The spotlight-like focus of “Thumbprint” is on ex-soldier Mallory Grennan, who participated in interrogations involving torture at Abu Ghraib but who was also one of the soldiers not punished in a court of law. “Thumbprint” #1 is evenly divided between flashbacks to Mallory’s recent past and the present day.
The world-building in “Thumbprint” is distinctive for its lack of flash. Considering its military and politically-charged subject matter, it’s remarkable how finely controlled and delicately balanced the narrative is. On the first page, as Mallory stands at the grave of her father, the obvious metaphor is that she also mourns the death of something in herself. Despite the potential for melodrama, it’s a quiet opener. Mallory’s character is gradually revealed in thought and actions, and she is at once vulnerable and dangerous, capable and broken, ordinary and monstrous. Hill and Ciaramelia manage to create sympathy for her humanity without losing perspective on what Hannah Arendt called “the banality of evil.”
Similarly, but even more impressively, Hill, Ciaramelia and Malhotra handle a torture scene well, not holding back from depicting brutality but also never wandering into torture-porn territory. There are few scenes as psychologically charged as torture, but the flashback in “Thumbprint” #1 entirely avoids commercialized sadism or sensationalism. Malhotra, in particular, should be praised. In his brushy shading and in his muted but clear facial expressions, he conveys claustrophobia and horror without ever going over-the-top. Somehow, he even communicates the casual cruelty, smiles and adrenaline highs of the interrogators without coming across as exploitative or even judgmental.
Though “Thumbprint” #1 is fiction, it aims for a matter-of-fact, even documentary approach. The horror of the story is drawn from the real world instead of the supernatural. Though told in first-person, Hill and Ciaramelia have Mallory hold back just enough that her soul is still half-hidden. Malhotra’s silent panels and subdued linework deliberately work to lay down a flattened, bleak emotional canvas, across which the emptiness and darkness of Mallory’s life are even clearer.
Malhotra also skillfully creates an atmosphere of menace. When Mallory makes a morning run in the woods, the pale gold colors and the outlines and shadows of the foliage in the backgrounds perfectly convey her early-morning solitude, so much so that the sequence is only lacking the smell of damp leaves to make it complete. Then, as panels descend in horizontal stripes down the page, the open horizon is diminished by an onlooker’s binocular vision, before being swallowed into purple-grays and blacks and two glassy lenses.
For those who read Hill’s prose novella, Malhotra’s art makes the comic worth picking up. Ciaramelia and Hill’s adaptation choices are smart and feel seamless. In comparison to the prose, there are also some interesting differences from the original story, most of them meant to create more dialogue or to tweak characterization.
“Thumbprint” #1 is a great beginning. Too little of the story has been told to see if it does justice to its ambitious themes and dark subject matter, but the debut issue is a winner in how it wraps the reader in with its exposition, atmosphere and restrained tension.