Review: Dark Country by Thomas Ott and Tab Murphy
To celebrate Halloween this week, The Comics Observer presents the second of two reviews by Bree Todish, a writer and voracious reader being introduced to comic books.
It’s Halloween! Can we just take a moment to revel in the awesome parts of this holiday? Sure, we may come to regret ill-advised costume and/or party choices. However, I’m talking about the real heart of Halloween: having an excuse to scare yourself half to death and do the same to others. Plus, lots of candy. And what better way to share scares than through books — they’re the mind’s candy! That’s what All Hallow’s Read is about, ain’t it?
Given my proclivity for the darker side of Sears, I was graciously granted the opportunity to review Raw Studios’ graphic novel of Dark Country. Another day, another adaptation: this one a graphic novel based off a film based off a short story written by Tab Murphy about a newlywed couple driving at night when, wouldn’t you know it, things go bad… and then get worse. Bear in mind, Imma be assessing just the graphic novel here without initially having seen the sources, so my thoughts and rambles will relate as such.
The illustrations by Thomas Ott are scratchboard which, for those unfamiliar, is a form of drawing in which the artist uses a white surface coated in black and scrapes, scratches, and etches away at the black to reveal the white beneath. Thus, scratchboard works use a lot of stippling and short lines, and its artists know very well the powers of light and shadow. This works especially well when crafting a gritty, dark piece such as this one.
The comic has no dialogue, and right off I’m going to say that’s not necessarily a bad thing, especially when we’re looking at something that’s based primarily off a film. Film is a visual medium and one should be able to understand the basics of a story through visuals — especially a good scary movie. Have you ever watched A Nightmare on Elm Street without the sound? It’s trippy. Yet you still understand what’s going on, and it’s still scary. The same could be said of this comic adaptation. Dialogue isn’t really necessary to understand what happens and the visuals are strong enough to engage you through most of the journey. Also, and this is just a personal gripe I have with some comics, it relies on you to determine what is important in a scene, not emphasize it for you which comic dialogue in particular has a tendency to do. A lot.
The story itself is creepy, if not entirely original. It follows a circular horror logic — the kind of ‘the call is coming from inside the house’ reveals that you pretty much see coming, but you enjoy the ride nonetheless. Without spoiling it, the couple on the road hits a man with their car, a creepy creepy man who seems to know about them and then tries to kill them. The couple get the upper hand, rid themselves of the creep and his body, drive to a deserted rest stop to clear their heads, and then as the kids would say: shit gets really weird. Again, some of the twists you see coming, but from an illustrative storytelling perspective it’s not really a deterrent. You’re engaged and want to know how it’ll turn out, even if you’re pretty sure you already know.
The scratchboard style really lends itself to this kind of night-terror tale telling and the wide storyboard layout works much better than a traditional comic layout would have. Each panel has its own snapshot of a scene and combined they utilize the medium to effectively play out the story. Also, having each panel framed with black as the background layout helps accent the isolation of the characters and the locations in the story. It doesn’t hurt in this instance having a story with a couple driving dark, lonely roads and visiting dark, empty places that are literally bordered by dark space on the page.
All in all, Dark Country isn’t going to win people over for originality in storytelling or plot, or even characterization. However, as a graphic novel creating an engaging atmosphere for a short, well-paced, intense story it is effective. The book edition comes including the original short story, which is laid out like a screenplay sans the formatting and differs slightly from the pictorial version (and thus, I assume, the film). It also includes bonus artwork from the film itself including concept material, storyboards, production and behind the scenes stills, and publicity materials. These are all pretty cool visually, though definitely added mostly for the benefit of those who’ve seen the film and want a more immersive experience. Still, after ‘reading’ the scratchboard tale I am pretty intrigued at seeing the film version (especially since it features iconic horror maester — and my favorite ‘love to hate’ character on Sons of Anarchy — Ron Perlman), which I’m pretty sure was their mission.
Bree Todish is a Writer, Michigan ex-pat, obsessive and voracious reader, devourer of pop culture, adorer of music, highly opinionated trixie little pixie. You can see her talk a bit about the vampires in popular culture here, or follow her reviews, rants, and pep-talks on pop culture and life here.