The Webcomic Overlook #214: False Positive
There’s something about horror that’s perfect for anthology series. After all, the entire format almost entirely depends on some sort of ironic and sudden conclusion. The mystery and the shocks sometimes contain more impact the shorter you keep the story. Make it longer — like, say, what the movie The Box did to a compact story written by Richard Matheson — and it can get a little too convoluted for its own good.
The most infamous example in comics is a publishing firm called Entertaining Comics … or, as everyone knows them by, EC Comics. The publisher worked on several anthology comics — from crime fiction to military fiction to science fiction. Its most enduring title, though, was its horror anthology: Tales From The Crypt. It was a magazine borne from the fires of World War II. Boys who were forced to endure the horrors of war just weren’t happy with the kiddie superhero stuff anymore. They were men now, daggumit! They wanted to see blood and gore, sex and violence.
Tales From The Crypt, though, would eventually run afoul of special interest groups and, eventually, the United States Congress. The anthology format lives on, though, especially in horror-themed webcomics. A couple of years ago, I took a look at Split Lip, which hopped from one macabre story to another. It was highly effective in compactly telling each horror story.
It’s not the only horror anthology out there, though. Today, we look at Mike Walton’s False Positive.
False Positive is very reliant on its twist endings. I’ll try not to spoil too much for you. It’s not easy, since these stories are short, and revealing even one thing could probably ruin the whole experience. If I can’t discuss the stories, what is there even to talk about? Still, a recent study by the UC San Diego, show that stories are not ruined by spoilers. To wit (spoilers ahoy for An Incident At Owl Creek Bridge and every single Agatha Christie novel ever):
Subjects significantly preferred the spoiled versions of ironic-twist stories, where, for example, it was revealed before reading that a condemned man’s daring escape is all a fantasy before the noose snaps tight around his neck.
The same held true for mysteries. Knowing ahead of time that Poirot will discover that the apparent target of attempted murder is, in fact, the perpetrator not only didn’t hurt enjoyment of the story but actually improved it.
So maybe I’m doing y’all a favor by actually revealing the twist ending rather than holding you all in suspense like that crazy pun-loving Crypt Keeper muppet. In any case, I’ll probably only discuss two of the stories in depth, and I’ll preface those with big’ ol’ spoiler alerts.
With that stalling aside, lets take a look at the first story.
So this one guy is on a trip. Where’s he going? Is it a business trip? Is it Cancun? Maybe he’s going … to space? Who knows? That’s not important. As with these short horror stories, we’re only given the basics of any given character. Our sympathy lies in the fact that, at any point, this unknown entity may have an axe buried in his head.
Now we get to the mystery. Our man picks up the wrong suitcase. This sounds like the beginning of an urban legend, by the way. You know, like the one of the guy with the pothead who accidentally cooks the baby (thinking it’s a turkey) or when a woman discovers a nest of spiders living in her immaculate beehive hairdo. I don’t know of any “wrong suitcase” scenarios, but it contains the same elements: a familiar, everyday occurrence that spirals out of control and contains a whiff of a morality play. (Namely: “Hey, dummy, at least put a ribbon on the handle so you can spot your luggage at the airport, you moron.”)
So our protagonist opens the case. Does he find drugs? The severed head of his wife? $100 million unmarked bills? “No,” says False Positive. “Think … Lovecraftian!” So our guy opens the case as finds a bunch of colored vials. Of course, he drops one. And all of the sudden, he gains superpowers! He starts to levitate around the room, laughing because he thinks he’s on drugs. The effects wear off, and he crashed down … onto the other vials. And then, suddenly, he mutates into a gross creature.
I guess it’s a little creepy … but more than anything, it’s actually kinda goofy. It’s also a little light, like something you’d see in the prologue for X-Files before Mulder and Scully arrive on the scene and the main story starts.
The title, False Positive, then, seems to be a reference to the content itself. You expect a horror comic. The art is rendered in a style geared toward realism. The colors are mute and somber. You’re being set up for something grisly. But nope! This is really just a gag strip. Your expectations of this being a tale of horror? All those signals were just registering a … false positive.
The most obviously humorous one deals with a shootout. Some lowlifes are holed up. They’re surrounded by cops. Things go wrong, though, and the shooting starts. One by one, people from both side are falling. But then, all of the sudden, Marie Antoinette shows up! Whaaaattt?!??! Wait, what’s going on?
Have you guessed the surprise twist yet?
C’mon. I’m waiting.
Ready to have your mind blown?
It turns out that this is the future! (Because wind-powered electricity is friggin’ everywhere.) Kids were just playing cops and robbers in a future version of the video game, and the sisters of one of the boys got her signals crossed.
I’m being sincere when I say that this is a twist worthy of a Twilight Zone episode. It would’ve been one of the rare happy ones, like the one where Charles Bronson finds the love of his life in a post-apocalyptic world. I mean, at least this one had a twist.
That’s not to say that all stories are sweetness. The comic is filled wih haunting and grisly imagery. “Cleanup”, for example, begins with a man slamming a hammer into another man’s skull. It’s perhaps the most heart-pounding scene in the entire comic, keeping you tense with every subsequent page. It gets more bloody from there. But even here, there’s a sarcastic, if morbid, sense of humor about the entire thing. It’s weird that, even though this is one of the later stories, I couldn’t help but think that this story could turn into either a thriller or a comedy. Walton does a great job of keeping you on your toes.
False Positive is also fairly similar to Twilight Zone in the variety of settings that it takes on. One story may take place in a car traveling down a lonely, deserted highway. Another flashes back to mythical Japan, where a warrior prepares to do battle with a dragon. Or maybe it’s some European village in the Middle Ages! The sky’s the limit here.
Walton’s style is deftly suitable to each style. There is a scene that takes place during the Age of Enlightenment, where several courtesans lounge around the room awaiting the decision of a recent customer. The ladies are, of course, lovely — and depicted in a wide array of body types, rather than a single stock figure with differing hair-dos. However, what I really liked about this scene was the background details. There’s a lovely stove to the side. Large heavy drapes almost totally conceal the bed at the center of the room. And you can see the patterns in the wallpaper. It’s the little details that go a long way to sell the setting, and to make each story feel like a totally unique experience.
The characters themselves, though, can be a little odd to look at. I like the facial expressions that Walton draws; each face packs a punch, whether depiction elation or horror. However, the rest of the designs can be a bit off-putting, since it looks like that, most of the time, Walton has elected to include the construction lines as part of the aesthetic. You can see the ovals on the shoulders and the knuckles. I suppose it conveys a less rigid style, but to me it makes people look too bony or too unfinished.
Not all the stories are winners, either. Some, I felt, veered too closely to the hokey territory, as if Walton was reaching for the sort of twist ending that no one could possibly predict. How could you? It would be like starting off with “Someone’s knocking on my front door” and hitting you with “Surprise! It was a velociraptor.” Now, there aren’t any velociraptors (yet). But that’s the sort of absurdity you can expect from False Positive.
Overall, though, I though this comic had more hits than misses, generating some pretty great mystery/horror stories. They’re well drawn, and they tell tidy, compact horror stories. Just don’t expect to be actually scared. Of the stories, I’d say that “Cops & Robbers” was my favorite, followed by “Cleanup”.
Rating: 5 stars (out of 5)