4.00 out of 5 Stars
Reviewed by J.W. DeBolt
Writer: Gentry Smith and Stan Wedeking
Artist: Daniel Wichinson (pencils and inks)
Artist: Gentry Smith and Sebastián Luqué (graytones)
Publisher: Paper Street Comics
Jessica Miller is the new girl in town, trying to fit in. She and her mom moved to Creston to start a new life, fleeing the town where her father had abused her. On the way home from the store, Jessica gets lost in the woods and comes across a serial killer’s victim. The killer is there, unbeknownst to her, and takes photos as part of his plan to implicate and recruit her.
Though shaken, Jessica later attends a party in the woods, trying to become part of the crowd. But one of her male classmates drugs her drink in order to take sexual advantage of her. The killer rescues her, murders the boy, and then invites Jessica to become his student in the art of killing so she never has to be mistreated again.
The killer somehow knows about Jessica’s past trauma and is able to manipulate her by making her feel victimized and pushing her toward a desire for revenge. Each time the killer takes a life, he justifies it to Jessica. She slips from her moral tether by means of his cold logic and because she is being pushed away by the students in her new school. Alienation and isolation provide the groundwork for the killer to mold his protégé. Adding to the lies he tells her and the evidence against her, he gives her almost no choice but to go along with him.
The shock of seeing what the killer did, perhaps, on top of what she’s gone through, drives her to find the belonging in him that she feels she needs. She could finally fit in – even if it’s only with a serial killer. But he should be careful about what he has created.
I saw some small flaws in the story. One character smashes an SUV window into pieces with his fist (not likely to happen in real life). The pacing is generally good, but a few times I wanted a longer buildup to a dramatic reveal or sudden turn in the story. I needed longer moments where an orchestra, in a film version of this, would have been inching up the scale with violins increasing their tempo before the “ta-daaaaa!”
More seriously, I saw no reference to who the first victim shown was. Surely a deceased human being needs to be mentioned somewhere. Also, the author doesn’t sufficiently build up Jessica’s motivation for taking this drastically deviant turn to join the killer. Sure, the killer had the power and could have sent her up on the killings, and we see later in the story that she would not have been believed by authorities, but her transition from and reversion to her previous sense of morality is not supported well. Perhaps if the writer had tied something the killer said to Jessica to something her father had said to her when she was being abused by him, then that would have worked to snap her out of it. Although, after her capture by the killer, we do see her using psychology that would not be expected from someone who has gone through what she has gone through, unless she’s been totally healed from it mentally and has all her wits about her. Perhaps this entire process did, in the end, provide a healing effect. But we do not know because there is no denouement!
I liked the ending, although a postclimactic scene would have rounded the story out and could have shown us how Jessica adjusted – whether she might experience further trauma or get seduced by evil again. But the story is genuinely engaging, the characters are believable (except where otherwise noted here), and the dialogue flows naturally.
At times I was on the edge of my metaphoric and actual seat. You could feel the tension ratcheting up, especially during the last part of the book. The suspense gets Koontzian in its intensity. The brutality and violence in the story are not gratuitous, but serve to show the depth of evil that has taken over the killer.
The art is OK and at times really as good as the Luna Brothers (and the story is even somewhat reminiscent of a Luna project). Some of my favorite examples:
- A three-panel close-up of Jessica as the killer drives home his point that makes her decide to follow him (we can see the thoughts churning in her face).
- Jessica’s expression when she’s almost about to lie to the sheriff.
- The whole page where she enters the gymnasium where the killer has two victims strung up, with details separated into smaller panels – the knife in the floor, the nooses around the victims, her shadow posed like a cowboy about to enter a shootout.
- And then a surprising shot: You don’t often see a depiction of a bullet fired lengthwise up an arm through the palm, arm and shoulder!
A brief note on the lettering: At first I found the lettering font intrusive. It seemed a little too stylized and diverted attention from the flow of reading. By the time I finished the book, however, I had gotten so used to it that it didn’t bother me.
After being uprooted from her home and taken to a strange place, Jessica is both literally and metaphorically lost in the woods. She starts to lose her morality after she is uprooted from her home and taken to a strange town where one influential character has an entirely different set of morals to impress upon her. If the story makes a comment about the human condition, it is this: Jessica’s past, hence the past of any person who has undergone mistreatment, abuse or brutality, does not predetermine a future where the victim must become like his abuser. We do not know what happened in the killer’s past to make him this way, but it can be sufficient to know that evil exists and has power to draw us in through the wiles of sympathy, justification, rationalization, and whatever other manipulative devices become available. We just have to remember, as Jessica does eventually, that we can find the power to resist evil – if we only call upon that power.