By Joshua Williams, Mike Henderson, and Adam Guzowski
Nailbiter is one of those few comic book experiences that comes off perfect in every aspect. Firstly the series is predicated more on concept than plot, preferring to explore the various facets of its central high concept pitch rather than emphasize a dense or byzantine primary narrative. That central concept revolves around Nailbiter’s excellently crafted setting, the town of Buckaroo, Oregon. The core idea of the series is that Buckaroo has somehow produced 16 of America’s worst serial killers. From there the story takes a loose approach to narrative progression that’s more in the vein of a TV show than a comic book. Author Joshua Williamson has a supreme command of pacing and confidence in his work that easily go hand-in-hand, always willing to afford unique ideas a full issue’s worth of focus without worrying about rushing to the next plot point. This leads to several major plot lines developing throughout the series all of which revolve around the central mystery of how such an innocuous town as Buckaroo could produce so many gruesome murderers.
The two main things Nailbiter uses are its comfortable breathing space for developing the expansive reality of Buckaroo and its history, while also making scathing and venomous social critiques. As a result this leaves a lot of the actual narratives fairly simplistic, but in the best possible way, usually culled from the kind of sensationalist schlock horror-thriller bin that informed ‘90s potboilers and criminal psychologist detective shows. It’s the kind of comic that ends up relishing in the artifice and trappings of its sleazy genre origins to the point of being a nearly pulp story. What stops the elaborate world of Buckaroo’s madness and conspiracy from slipping into that particular vein is that there always ends up a point behind the hodgepodge of serial killer story pieces the comic has assembled. Underneath the small town secrets, cast of quirky locals, slasher villain-esque cast of killers, and breadcrumb trailer of increasingly elaborate and ludicrous clues, there’s a real sense of anger and purpose directed at a uniquely under-explored segment of real world media obsession with lurid serial killers.
The major social critique Nailbiter looks to make is about the dehumanizing effects of cultural fixation on serial killers. That idea alone isn’t new, but Nailbiter finds a unique spin on it by focusing on the impact this has on the family and social circle of serial killers who’ve been turned into national boogeyman. While previously this focus was on the way psychological pain and guilt this media fixation forced on people this latest issue of Nailbiter caps off a recent shift in focus towards the glamorization and pop psychology inherent to these media circuses. There’s a very nuanced and well composed undercurrent about how fear, grief, and helplessness in the face of such horrors can turn people into the very monsters their loved ones became.
In addition to those ideas this issue marks the beginning of a shift towards future ideas for Nailbiter. There are a lot of revelations this month about the nature of the town and the trail of clues that have been discovered so far and while the ultimate meaning of these new ideas has yet to become clear it’s certainly drawing more into focus. It seems Nailbiter is turning its critical eye in a more inward direction, specifically critiquing the extensive, overinflated, and patently false mythos of horror that tends to arise around serial killers as part of an attempt to either explain or aggrandize their actions.
All of this amazing blend between sleazy genre tropes and deeper social criticism is slathered over in the amazing artwork of Mike Henderson and coloring work of Adam Guzowski. Henderson’s main strength is in his character work and Nailbiter is a showcase of his best abilities. He especially shines in the designs of the Buckaroo Butchers, each one with a unique visual iconography drawn from slasher films, urban legends, and serial killer lore. Henderson has the incredible talent of creating designs that feel as if they’ve always existed, like he’s just recreating a visual character we’ve all always known about. At the same time he can do some really great layout work, often utilizing panel design or speech bubble placement to compliment the emotions or actions of any given scene. Guzowski, for his part, does a fine job coloring. Henderson is definitely the artistic star of the show, but Guzowksi does a consummate job backing him up and his work with bold, defined colors is a major boon to the series.
Nailbiter is like a high wire balancing act of genre and focus that’s simply amazing to behold. A lesser series could easily end up subsumed by its sleazy affectations or might have had its stylistic flourishes drowned out under its social critiques but Nailbiter finds an incredible sweet spot between the two that can still satisfy everyone. If you want to read it and revel in the gruesome murderers and outlandish mythos it’s still every bit as enjoyable as if you were reading it for the passionate takedown of the violence obsessed media. A real masterpiece from everyone involved.