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Are they zombies? Or aren’t they? We may never know!
Awakening is another one of those Archaia books that got put on the shelf when the company had their reorganization recently, and now the first half has been released in a snazzy hardcover volume. The fine folk at Archaia actually sent this to me, so I’d like to thank them for it. It’s written by the extremely enthusiastic Nick Tapalansky, drawn by Alex Eckman-Lawn, and lettered by Thomas Mauer. It will set you back $19.95. The ISBN is 978-1-932386-48-6. Look how helpful I am!
I read some of the serialized version of this comic back when it was first released (the first two issues, I think), and it’s nice that it’s getting released in two hardcover volumes (I haven’t seen the second volume solicited yet, so I’m not sure when it’s arriving). The hardcover is a very nice package, with a few extra pages (they don’t add too much, but they do add something) and some nifty pin-ups, and it’s always good to read stories like this in one shot rather than as a serial. At least I think so.
When the book first came out, I wasn’t blown away, mainly because it seemed like another take on the zombie sub-genre, and I’m not a huge fan of zombies (I’ll read zombie books, but I don’t feel the need to rush out and buy anything zombie-related). A ex-cop in the town of Park Falls, Derrick Peters, visits a woman named Cynthia one January day. She was fired by a pharmaceutical company that later packed up their factory on the outskirts of town and disappeared, and she believes that they were engaged in some shifty business. She tells Derrick that zombies are behind a series of horrific deaths in town, where the victims were partially eaten. Derrick doesn’t believe her at first (Cynthia is the town crazy), but as he begins to investigate, he starts to think that maybe she was on to something. A mysterious doctor, Daniel Howe, has been sent to the town (presumably by the government, although it’s never stated) to find out what’s going on. He and Derrick team up and begin investigating. Things, not surprisingly, get worse.
Derrick checks out the pharmaceutical company, but he can’t get much because they only employed temps. Dr. Howe slices up the bodies of the “zombies” and finds nothing conclusive. Toward the end of the volume, we find out a bit more about why Derrick is no longer on the force and why Cynthia is considered the town kook. The volume ends with the return of someone Derrick thought was out of his life forever, but what is has to do with the zombies, we don’t know yet.
It’s difficult reviewing this because it’s just the first part of the story. Tapalansky throws a lot of stuff into the pot here, and we have no idea how it will pay off. That’s refreshing, actually, because this is obviously NOT a regular zombie story – Tapalansky constantly undermines that idea, while promising clues about all sorts of things that don’t pan out. It’s interesting but frustrating, because whenever we think he’s striking out in one direction, he yanks us back and shows us another direction. Again, I won’t say it’s a bad thing because we still have five chapters left in the story, so Tapalansky could easily pull it all together and make sense of the plot threads. What he does well, however, is create a sense of mood and danger. Park Falls is a bleak town, and Tapalansky makes its citizens cyphers, which wouldn’t work usually but adds a nice flavor of weirdness to the narrative. In a few places, the book becomes too oblique – there’s a sequence in issue #3 that I still can’t make sense of – but for the most part, Tapalansky balances the desire to be secretive with the need to give us enough information to make the plot worth it.
Eckman-Lawn’s art is unique, but that’s not necessarily a good thing. He has his strengths and weaknesses, and they’re very much evident in this comic. He combines with Tapalansky’s script to create this creepy town, and he does it very well, blending photographs of tired houses and churches with a rough, woodcut art style that highlights the way the town and the people in it have been bludgeoned by life. While Tapalansky does a good job making the people cryptic, Eckman-Lawn takes that even further and makes Park Falls almost a hell on earth, full of shadows and vertiginous architecture and haunted both by the “zombies” and the unaffected. Unfortunately, this kind of art also gets Eckman-Lawn in trouble when he’s called upon to be more dynamic – his action scenes, as few as they are and as drenched in shadows as they are, have a stiffness and awkwardness that rob them of any tension. There’s one really good action scene in the book – when Derrick is attacked outside the pharmaceutical factory in issue #2 – but in later ones, the characters are fuzzy and stiffly posed, as if Eckman-Lawn wasn’t confident in his abilities to make them real. Which is odd, as he does a fairly capable job in the one I just cited. I’m not sure how long the gap between issues was, because Eckman-Lawn, while retaining a lot of his style, softens his hard lines slightly in the later chapters, and sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. For the most part, the art works well with the story in creating this bleak world, but there are some unfortunate flaws in it.
There’s a lot to like about Awakening, and I’m glad Tapalansky is resisting the urge to make this a simple zombie story. He subverts our expectations often, which is cool, but because the book is only half of the whole, it’s hard to judge it. I will say that if you like horror comics, you’ll probably like this. It’s a weird book that gets under your skin, and although it’s not perfect, it is pretty gripping.
Tomorrow at noon: John Constantine? What’s he doing in these reviews?
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