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Hill House Comics

Plunge

Joe Hill saved the best for last in his five-volume Hill House Comics label!

The story takes inspiration from The Thing and Alien movies, and also a touch of the spiral-obsessed Uzumaki manga series. Set in modern-day, a distress signal from a drilling ship lost 40 years ago in the Arctic Circle is heard, so a salvage ship hired by an oil corporation heads out to find it. Onboard are Captain Carpenter, two of his brothers, a marine biologist couple, various crew members and a representative from Rococo International. They are quickly in over their heads when they stopover at an Aleutian Island near the Russian border, and discover the crew members from the Derleth (this is an Easter Egg reference, look up who August Derleth is), who are gaunt and eyeless but haven’t aged. 

In a somewhat convoluted storyline, the crew finds out that extraterrestrial worms have taken over the old crew, and they are purely vessels for the alien creatures. The greedy Rococo rep has had a secret agenda (of course) and wants to profit from the aliens with their math knowledge and an other-worldly component that could give them unlimited nuclear power. There are betrayals, deaths and action-packed scenes that will keep readers riveted. I also appreciated the poignancy of the brotherly love the Carpenter men showed one another.  

The art by Stuart Immonen was excellent, and his work elevated the story, so I am glad Hill convinced him to come out of retirement for this graphic novel. Often art in horror-themed graphic novels tends towards the sketchy and the dark, but Immonen’s work is precise and detailed, which brings the terror to the forefront more effectively. He really captured the personalities of different characters and made my heart go pitter-patter for the bearded captain, and that the alien creatures are Lovecraftian is an added bonus. The color palette by Dave Stewart was appropriately ocean-inspired with grey, blue and dull greens and the letterer Deron Bennett had fun with the opening chapter pages as he converted words into a new mathematical language. 

This new Hill House label has been uneven, yet very promising. The two titles penned by Hill, including Basketful of Heads were the best of the bunch, yet I appreciated that the horror-inspired graphic novels included a variety of authors to reach different audiences. Here’s to hoping there will be future Hill House stories!

-Nancy

Daphne Byrne

This Gothic story is an interesting mix of Rosemary’s Baby meets The Omen!

Set in New York City in 1886, fourteen-year-old Daphne has just lost her father, and her mother is being bamboozled by a spiritualist who has a sinister plan in store for her. A ghostly young man appears to Daphne- and we are never sure of his intents or origins, but his shadowy specter convinces her to explore her inner darkness. Are some of her underworld experiences real or the delusions of a grieving daughter? But she takes her new-found power to help her mother when she is kidnapped by a nefarious cult-like group who wishes her to bear them a child of the Devil. 

The art is a mixed bag. Drawn in a pulp-fiction style, the art veers between cartoony and realistic. There can be detailed panels with cool imagery (look for creepy surprises drawn into some of the backgrounds), but then the faces can be distorted and shown incorrectly. Despite Daphne and some classmates being teens, some shadowing and lines were added to make them look old and haggard. Closeups were nobody’s friend in this book. A late scene of nudity made me chuckle, as I enjoyed seeing how they would draw the bodies to have something always blocking their private parts. The chapter breaks included cover art drawn in a different style that was striking- with the one of Daphne sitting at a graveside being my absolute favorite. 

This story appealed to me more than I thought it would- in one way it was campy, yet I liked the way Daphne gave into her inner demons to utilize them to her benefit. Thank you to NetGalley for giving me an advance online copy of this fourth entry in the Hill House label!

-Nancy

The Dollhouse Family

A dollhouse lures generations of people into its clutches, but why?

In 1979 Britain, Alice mysteriously receives an elaborate old-fashioned dollhouse from a great-aunt that she was unaware of. She loves to play with it and the dollhouse family to escape the abuse that her father is inflicting on her family. With a child’s innocence, she accepts it when the dolls talk to her and is thrilled to use the chant they teach her so she can become small and join them. There is an unusual balance in the house, the dolls seem content yet they are aware there is an evil entity in the house that soon draws Alice in and tries to make a Faustian bargain with her. This is where the plot goes sideways to me- a tragedy befalls Alice and she spends years in a foster home. But as Alice grows up and has a daughter herself, we get odd flashbacks to Ireland in the late 1800s and how a surveyor’s exploration of a cave and his meeting with a succubus lead to the dollhouse. We get the expected fight of good vs evil at the end, but only after the narratives of past and present are confusingly knit together.

The art was good, and I actually found the illustrations portraying the past to be evocatively authentic and more to my liking than the modern-day depictions. I enjoyed the chapter openings that showed creepy dolls that gave a hint of what was to come. Some of the lettering in my online copy was off, such as additional details to the side of the illustrations were covered by the art or so faint as to be unreadable. I would hope in a print edition this would be corrected. 

Despite the strong start with the Hill House label, this third graphic novel isn’t up to snuff. It felt like a mix of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline plus a weak Locke and Key, which Joe Hill wrote.  In fact, Hill’s single-issue Small World was all about a dollhouse, so this felt like a convoluted British knockoff of it. But I still look forward to the last two titles in this label and am glad I was able to read an early copy through NetGalley. 

-Nancy

The Low, Low Woods

The Low, Low Woods is an atmospheric and surreal horror story set in the dying coal town of Shudder-To-Think, Pennsylvania.

Elements of feminism and malevolence come into play, as two young women El and Vee realize something is terribly wrong in their town. Years ago a fire moved underground into the coal mines, forcing their closures and gutting an already fragile economy. In addition, women began to exhibit strange episodes in which they were losing large portions of their memory. When this seems to happen to the two friends on an evening at the movies, they want answers. Readers then discover there is already a layer of magic, as a strange deer/human hybrid is sighted, skinned men are hiding in the woods, and there are rabbits everywhere with human eyes. There is somewhat of a Paper Girls vibe in this story, further supported that El and Vee ride their bikes everywhere, but late in the story the narrative takes a sharp and confusing turn. A witch who is trying to combat the cruelty of the men in the region, as previous sexual assaults are implied in the story but not seen, but her spells don’t always work the way she intended. The remainder of the story is the young women trying to give agency back to the women affected by the dark magic.

The illustrations by artist Dani are dark with a color palette using a lot of black and red. The panels are varied, often with a large picture with smaller ones layered on top with black gutters. But the lines can be imprecise and lacking details. For example, El who is a larger woman is often drawn blocky. But I did appreciate that the various characters were given a diverse look. There was a lot of dialogue and information given in text boxes, with a small font that made reading challenging.

I have read a previous short story, Blur,  by the author Carmen Maria Machado through LeVar Burton Reads, and she is known for her LGTBQ+ storylines in the horror genre. While this story wasn’t exactly to my liking, I like how Hill House Comics is using a variety of authors to reach different audiences. I was pleased to receive an advance copy through NetGalley and I plan on reading more of this label’s graphic novels!

-Nancy

Basketful of Heads

Joe Hill is having a moment. With his Locke & Key series now on Netflix, and his novels and short-story collections in high demand, DC has given him a prestige project, his own label- Hill House Comics. While not all of the graphic novels under this label will be penned by him, this first story is.

Set in September 1983, on Brody Island in Maine, the story establishes an 80s horror flick vibe. June is visiting her boyfriend Liam who is wrapping up his summer job as a deputy before going back to college in the fall. But a prison break (with a homage to Hill’s father Stephen King) puts their reunion in jeopardy. The two head to the police chief’s palatial estate during a growing storm and are amazed by the chief’s Viking artifacts collection. A battle-ax comes in very handy when the convicts land on their doorstep…

There are some twists and turns as to who the convicts are and who they are connected to on the island. As June fights for her life, grabbing the first weapon in sight, the ax’s power manifests in that the decapitated head is still alive and can continue talking. But heads begin to roll (!!) as June tries to find Liam and has to fight off several more criminals. Many secrets of corruption on the island are revealed by these talking heads. A final show-down discloses some heartbreaking truths and June obtains justice for a young woman who had been used and abused that summer.

Artists Leomacs and Riccardo La Bella really captured the era and northeast region well. There were crude jokes with some characters getting an almost Mad magazine type of caricature treatment, especially three times when a character is drawn with two heads as they are reacting to news. I loved the chapter breaks, as June’s basket fills and how the chapter numbers are symbolized. These sight gags, plus others, matched the tone of the narrative and made me laugh.

I enjoyed the dark humor as the horror-aspect of it all was played fast and loose. Thanks to NetGalley for this advance copy, for with this graphic novel as the first in the collection, I am looking forward to the others coming out in the months ahead. Joe Hill, both in graphic novels and books, is now definitely a favored author of mine.

-Nancy

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