The Webcomic Overlook #109: Haunted
When I put together a list of the webcomics I’d planned on reviewing for February, I had no idea that two of them had something in common. It wasn’t apparent immediately. One was about a haunted house, the other was about a shaolin monk living at the end of the Ming Dynasty. However, when scanning the press releases, I came to a surprising discovery: both were awarded a Xeric grant. It’s wacky ka-winky-dinks like this that lead to this site’s impromptu theme weeks/months (see also: Zombie Week). Thus, by the power vested in me, The Webcomic Overlook hereby declare this week to be Xeric Week! Cue fireworks!
But wait, what is a Xeric grant? And what is this so called “Xeric Foundation” that’s running it? Judging by the name alone, shouldn’t they be bad guys in a Marvel comic, sworn enemies of the Starjammers and the Shi’ar Empire? No, actually they’re a charitable organization, founded by Peter Laird (who you should know was one of the guys behind a little thing known as the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles). While involved in several charitable organizations, the Xeric Foundation is best known for donating money to support independent comic book artists. I’ve talked about them before on this blog, mainly in my review of Joe Chiapetta’s Silly Daddy. (Silly Daddy itself is not itself a Xeric winner, but Chiapetta is a grant winner for a previous work, A Death in the Family.)
According to Wikipedia, “The Foundation tends to support work of an alternative or non-‘mainstream’ nature, reasoning that if a comic has strong commercial appeal, it would be picked up by one of the major publishers. Therefore, it is an extremely valuable supporter of ‘art for art’s sake’ comics, and has helped launch the careers of a number of ‘literary’ cartoonists.” In other words, indie comics. The kind with unsettling art and embarrassing personal confessions. This criteria isn’t explicitly stated on the official Xeric site; they only say that “Among the qualities that we will be looking for are: originality, literary and artistic merit, and a sense of commitment to the work.” However, a glance through the supremely unconventional Silly Daddy will have you convinced that the Wikipedia description is right on the money.
Or are they? Your honor, I would like to present to you Joshua Smeaton’s Haunted, one of the 5 grant winners in May 2009. The most surprising thing about this indie comic is that Haunted looks — both in terms of aesthetics and content — like it’s got the chops to win mainstream approval.
We begin Haunted by following the adventures of Professor Snape when he was a handsome young man. Or, as he is known here, Johnathan Briar. Briar is a fan of magic, but no so much a fan of monkeys, one of which he keeps imprisoned as a test subject. After uttering some unpronounceable words, the primate dies, and his grape-flavored spirit escapes the bars and drifts toward the ceiling. Perhaps a little angry with himself that a ghost-monkey is now loose in his house, Briar also turns into a ghost and presumably gives chase. You might say that Briar … *puts on sunglasses* … is monkeying around with the occult.
He must have not be having a very good time catching that monkey, because we flash forward to 112 years later. Haunted, then, suddenly transforms into a John Hughes film. We’re introduced to a group of middle school kids getting pushed around by a big bully who looks like the Heat Miser. After Heat Miser’s beloved iPod gets confiscated by the stuffy school principal, he threatens the kids with bat-related harm into getting it back. (Which, frankly, they seemed all too happy to go along with. First of all, it’s three against one. Second, they end up causing more destruction to the school than the value of the iPod.)
So, the kids — led by a superficially clean-cut kid named Ricky — decided to initiate a Project-Mayhem-esque plan to break into the principal’s office. The lynchpin of the plan is rolling a giant globe that’s bigger than any of the kids. I’m kinda surprised that any middle school had this kind of educational accessory, so I’m guessing it was really, really expensive. The stunt doesn’t go so well, and Ricky gets three weeks of detention after pulling the Simpsons phone prank on the stuffy principal. But, you know, we learn later that Ricky is kind of disturbed, so bully for him, I guess.
Meanwhile, two of the Project Mayhem Jr. kids learn about a high school party at the abandoned Brair Mansion. The allure of free beer, high school girls, and an adventure worthy of Ghost Hunters International proves to be too strong, and they amass an every growing legion of Middle Schoolers to join in the bacchanalia. After initially being rejected at the door on the nebulous metric of not being cool, the kids find a backdoor.
The central character of Haunted is Briar Mansion itself. It looks fantastic. With all the crisp edges and substantial detail, I got to wondering of Smeaton was an architect of some sort. (An interview with The Comics Review reveals that while there was no architecture background, he did get a degree in commercial art.) He renders every building in Haunted with a contractor’s eye: the schools, the houses in the neighborhood, etc. But Smeaton really outdoes himself with the Briar Mansion. The building is a solid and imposing monolith on the outside, yet cavernous and chilly on the inside.
If only the human characters had as much personality. With exception to the bully (who is no Steerpike, by the way), the entire cast of Haunted is rather interchangeable. We don’t know much about these kids beyond their single, defining traits. There’s the emo, mopey one with daddy issues. The prankster one. The horny one. The girls.
When we finally get to the haunted house, most have nothing to do except hang around freak out when the ghost appears. (Wait, was that a spoiler? Oh, um, spoiler alert!) The cast, in fact, could probably have been pared down to two or three and have been far more effective. As it is, the comic lurches its focus from character to character, and we, the readers, don’t develop much emotional investment to any of them.
Plus, the ghost really isn’t all that scary. Like I said, Ghost Briar a handsome devil. If he were another form of horror creature — like say, a vampire or a werewolf — I imagine that the girls would be all upons. But he’s not a spectre that’s strikes visceral horror in our hearts.
By the way, I felt that the ghost showed up far too early. On cue, Ghost Briar drifts up from the floor, spooks the kids, then chases them around the house. This is a very economical way to introduce the ghost, to be sure. But it’s not scary. While it’s cliche to have characters gradually becoming away of creepy paranormal events — rattling chains, watching from eyeholes behind paintings, moaning and moving things and whatnot — until the Big Bad finally reveals himself, it’s a cliche that works. Leave the monster off the page and let the uneasiness of the unknown take over. Heck, it’s what makes “The Monster at the End of This Book” a sterling example of terror and suspense.
From the moment Ghost Briar is introduced, Haunted has a difficult time ramping up the stakes. It’s more or less running back and forth down the halls of the Briar Mansion, like an elaborate depiction of the chase scenes in Scooby Doo. The scariest thing Briar does is touching people … and, frankly, touching underaged girls is more inappropriate than spooky. And then the ghost monkey shows up.
Fake prediction: Briar will thank the kids for finally finding his monkey after 112 years and then disappear forever. (And for those of you planning to chime in that he’s a baboon…. Look. He has a tail. It’s a monkey.)
Though I found the story itself to be flimsy, you have to credit Josh Smeaton for his crisp, eye-catching art. He’s very effective in using perspective, either in the long school corridors or the twisty staircases of Briar Mansion. Plus, the color palette, when it’s employed*, is spectacular. Haunted is set around Halloween time, and early scenes are awash in the yellows, oranges, and browns of autumn. However, a significant portion of Haunted is spent in nighttime, where the moody environment isolate our characters — small specks of colors in a world plunged in gloom.
In the end, while the story seemed to thin to recommend, the art does a lot to make up the difference. Plus, the story is still in it’s early stages yet, which give Haunted ample time to develop. (Though it’s issue five already … you figure something should’ve happened.) Maybe it will take a few more issues for Haunted … *puts on sunglasses* … to cast you in its spell.**
YYYEEAAAAAoh wait, I already did that joke.
Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)
* – Halfway through, Haunted goes from full color to black-and-white. One of the greatest benefits of Haunted in the wonderful coloring, and the black-and-white panels don’t look quite so vivid. However, the pages are rendered in full color in the print version.
** – I almost formatted these puns into Tales of the Crypt-type jokes, but I doubt that kids these days would know what in the world I was talking about.
Posted on February 21, 2010, in 3 Stars, adventure webcomic, all ages webcomic, gothic, mystery webcomic, The Webcomic Overlook, WCO Big Review, webcomics and tagged Haunted. Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.