By Shawn Aldridge, Scott Godlewski, Patricia Mulvihill, and Clem Robins
Sometimes you eat the bear, and sometimes, well, the bear eats you. Or perhaps more appropriately, the unknown and ominous quasi-bird monster eats you. But that’s life, ain’t it? The Dark and Bloody #1 is first and foremost more about the former than it is about the latter, but the real surprise and delight lies in the steady flow of unbridled humanity through the stunningly canorous art. It’s about surviving the everyday, playing the hand you’ve been dealt, and fighting off the outside invaders that want to seep in and wrangle it away from you. Aldridge, Godlewski, Mulvihill, and Robins have concocted a thematically raw and rough hewn story that belies the grotesqueries of Tyler Crook’s capturing cover. For a story with so much death, The Dark and Bloody is absolutely teeming with life.
“I knew how to kill before I knew how to kiss.” Welcome to The Hollers, indeed. With that opening bit of internal monologue, Shawn Aldridge pulls you deep into the muck of Iris’ mind and life, and he doesn’t let up one iota from there. Often, having the lead character’s captions drive most of the narrative can be burdensome or lean too heavily on exposition, but Aldridge utilizes it throughout the first issue not only perfectly, but damn near poetically. It’s economically doled out with some heavy glints of the themes at work, but almost wholly dedicated to shaping the character and this world, resulting in captivating storytelling that feels utterly familiar even if you’ve never even flown over Kentucky.
Aldridge smartly lets the script breathe with beats that linger and settle the reader into a false sense of security as we connect and empathize with a family man/moonshiner/war veteran, but keeps an electric unease in the background all the while. You know something horrible is coming and the myriad glimpses into the ups and downs of Iris’ past and present only feed that tension. The issue is structured wonderfully on this foundation of growing anxiety that is beautifully built upon by characters that feel comfortably real. What could come across as heavy handed or on-the-nose narration instead melodically balances the down to Earth dialogue and setting; the harsh realities of trying to survive both literally and figuratively complement the transience of sitting down to dinner and hearing about your son’s first potential girlfriend. From afar, it’s a story that is framing itself as people trying to abate the inevitable as we all do while reveling in and paying the price for the things we can control. Oh, and about creepy monster murderers and maybe magic too, thank goodness.
So, here’s the thing about The Dark and Bloody #1 being about way more than the title and cover would have you believe: the art is so on point, you can just go ahead and look at the pictures and still walk away with a thorough understanding of all the subtleties and thematic minutiae. Godlewski and Mulvhill are quite the tandem and produce a visual aesthetic that is, again, surprisingly rich. With the same laser sharp line, angular figure work, and knack for capturing emotional refinements that Godlewski consistently delivers on Copperhead, what stands out here is his control of narrative pacing. The aforementioned tension that consistently lingers throughout the issue owes much to Godlewski’s storytelling, specifically his layouts. There are several instances of wide, quiet shots centered on a still Iris that fall delicately in between and underneath more action-oriented moments on a single page. It’s a literal layering (with overlapping panels) and a storytelling layering that generate a false calmness and it’s delightful in its still horror. Of course, things go absolutely bananas on a pair of double-page spreads that go from ridgedly structured panels to jagged polygon nightmares as chaos unfolds. The figures are given life by taking their time and having those beats to react naturally to a wide range of emotional bombardment from grief to solemnity to anxiety to just enjoying that sweet burn of moonshine aftertaste.
Inverting the dark, texturally murky, and ensanguined coloring one might expect in a horror title, Patricia Mulvihill delivers a bold and saturated effort that brilliantly complements Aldridge’s script and Godlewski’s art. There’s still plenty of texture of course, but most striking is the sense of vitality given to the art, especially the richness of the warms in her primarily earthy palette. The sickly green sky and dark olive pond that open the book clearly set the tone of the murky waters of subtext we’ll be wading through, but transition to the scorching embers of war-riddled Iraq and stay warm with a mirrored sun in the form of a distillery shed’s lightbulb at night in the middle of Kentucky. It’s a very strong beginning that goes from one extreme to another only to settle itself somewhere in between the two as contrasting hues of night blue skies and incandescent lit bodies mingle. That level of contrast is only taken up a notch when we get into those chaotic douple-page spreads with reddened foregrounds and alternating shocks of yellow and sunken indigos. Mulvihill’s palette and applications are akin to something you’d readily expect to find in a mainstream superhero title but are incorporated into the disquiet world of The Hollers with ease.
The unmistakable humanity, the calm and the struggles, that can be distilled from the pages of The Dark and Bloody #1 are by far the most striking element to a book that is far more than another gory, spooky story. The clash between what you can control and what you can’t (your past, your moonshine operation, your family’s security and safety) is palpable and the tension it produces is a wonderful surprise that accompanies a budding, rural supernatural darkness. The Dark and Bloody #1 balances the real with the unreal, the dark with the light, the slow crawls with the rapid sprints, and of course, the dead from the dying.