By Jason McNamara and Greg Hinkle
It’s pitch black out, your car’s out of commission on the side of the road, and one would-be Samaritan reveals himself as a far more sinister stranger. Imagine how much worse it could have been. That’s precisely what Jason McNamara and Greg Hinkle have done, taking a truly chilling real-life event of McNamara’s and crafting a 100-page thriller rife with blood, twists, S&M clowns, madness, and more blood. The Rattler was born from an actual experience and in these creators’ imaginative and capable hands, deliver a maniacally propelled look at loss and obsession. More than anything, it’s about grief and letting go and what happens when we come out of that process on the darkest of sides. Loss and fear give way to obsession which in turn gives way to madness in what is nothing short of a truly twisted love story. Let it go or go all the grisly, bloody way.
The Rattler, for all its serpentine turns, is a steadfastly paced beast that moves in rhythm with the mindset of its lead subject, Stephen Thorn. An accomplished author turned unwaveringly staunch victim’s rights advocate, Thorn is the product of a traumatic event involving some of the details mentioned above that resulted in the kidnapping of his wife ten years ago. He is unapologetic in his determination that his wife, Catherine, is still alive and we watch this consume and unravel his life to a new degree following the death of his semi-estranged father. Things…well, things get pretty freaking bonkers intense from there on out.
One of the most striking aspects to this work is just how much it feels like a truly collaborative effort. McNamara and Hinkle craft in tandem this Hitchockian aura to the brutal proceedings with a flair for tension and utter bewilderment as to what is to come. It’s a Pyscho-infused Breakdown (but, like, way better obviously) through an expressionistic lens that only better serves to convey the intensity of the characters and the world. It is, above all, a well-told story.
McNamara’s script dances the lines between horror and action and procedural run amok, but while it is undeniably disturbing, it is beyond compelling. You have to know where the story is going next, dismemberments and imprisonments be damned. Perhaps the most interest elements are the thematic explorations into grief and the strength of relationships via Thorn’s perspective. This particular trail of madness (which is deftly ambiguous in supernatural origin), which truly began with the kidnapping of Thorn’s wife those many years ago, is really brought on by the loss of his father. McNamara instills this early scene with a wealth of subtext regarding abandonment, identity, pain, and blame that culminates in a razor sharp line about (literally) growing up on your own. It’s a rich, satisfying scene that provides real insight into who Thorn is and what’s driven him throughout his life. With that as the backdrop, getting to assess for yourself how much of a self-centered, righteous jerk he is as the insanity begins to unfold is a rewarding layer to this thriller. Thorn’s love becomes his madness and this litmus test for how much all of his other relationships can bend without breaking is quite a thing to behold.
The script isn’t immune to some genre trappings, however, and some characters fare better than others in regards to being developed or clearly motivated such as Marshall Rodriguez or Marion Boyd. A number of background characters such as Thorn’s uncle, the torture-porn clowns (you read that right), and the scandalous couple serve the story well in complementary roles without dipping too far deep into the familiar tropes pool, but Rodriguez largely seems to simply be there because someone’s gotta solve this case and they need a badge. Given the satisfying speed of the story, there’s not much room for brandishing all sorts of in depth character backgrounds, certainly, but some of the character work comes off as safe and familiar; something The Rattler itself certainly isn’t.
Greg Hinkle can tell a comic book story, dammit. Immediately noticeable is that same, well-balanced cartooning style that incorporates subtle exaggerations, rich detailing, a fervent energy, and smart pacing many will recognize from his work on Airboy. Right from the start, his figure work is simultaneously angular and buoyant, vivacious yet grounded, with facial expressions that convey the full spectrum of the unsaid language. It’s all about the body language here with Hinkle, and the smooth transitions between the somber and the brutal make for an engaging visual experience. The unimaginable pain of having a nipple pulled off (pulled!) is palpable and manages to operate in lockstep with quiet anguish of the much more cerebral pain of loneliness. Capturing the mood and setting the ambiance for this gripping and twisted look at one man’s dedication to his love is a testament to how versatile Hinkle’s style is because he captures and controls the tension with a director’s eye and a madman’s flair.
There’s a plethora of subtleties at work from Hinkle that really enrich the madness. Pay close attention to the panel border choices and how they inform the mental state of Thorn on his journey; from the standard rigid moments of determination to the jagged menace of control slipping away. The panels of that inciting night when his beloved is torn away are framed like pieces of torn paper, a painful memory ripped and overlapping all that is to come. They reappear again years later, softer but still torn, as his father gives way to a new horror and rejuvenated mission. Rodriguez’s recounting of what led him to Chantal’s home are devoid of any borders, content to let him paint his picture on a blank canvas and a particularly fun 8 panel grid reveals a tortuous night for Thorn from the perspective of a video camera replete with all the recording graphics one would expect of an unexpected event. It’s all that little detail that pairs beautifully with the intricate details of establishing the world (the contents of a neglected kitchen, the full table spread of a romantic rendezvous, the undulations of a country road) that make for a fruitful and ultimately, horrific affair.
There’s nary a splash page or double-page spread to be found throughout, instead Hinkle’s opted to keep the pacing in that Hitchcock wheelhouse and balance establishing shots with close-ups in a manner befitting the thriller nature of the piece. If anything there are instances of there being too much on the page depending on the rate of action being displayed, which is largely due to Hinkle’s dedication to detailing textures such as some of the car chases/crashes, but it’s always in service to the natural rapidity of the moment. In the same vein, the color choices are limited to the monochromatic grey shading with only splashes of blood red to dot the way. It isn’t the first time you’ve seen this done, but it is certainly as effective here as it is anywhere else; almost more so due to the particular, unassuming yet rich style employed.
Not every love story needs to play by the same rulebook and The Rattler is a testament to the darker sides of the needs, wants, and madness that come with relationships. Amazingly, despite the grave subject matter, The Rattler is also a ton of fun. It dares you to put it down and not complete it in one sitting (you will) and paints a portrait that isn’t grotesque so much as it is tragic. Twists and turns can be found aplenty, but the ending is a legitimate gut punch that isn’t telegraphed, but still very sincere without an ounce of shock for shock-value’s sake. It’s never contrived and plows over the few familiar trappings with ease with gripping storytelling borne from the minds of two true collaborators. Loss, grief, determination, and love; The Rattler refuses to let go.
The Rattler will be released from Image Comics on March 23rd, 2016