Friday, March 11, 2016

Recommended Reading for 3/11: Nailbiter

I've rarely written a recommended reading for a series that I review on a regular basis; there are so many comics to write about, I want to get to them all. But there a handful of comics going right now that I enjoy so much that I want to give them a little extra boost, and with Image Comics publishing plan that usually allows a couple of months in between arcs when trades and hardcovers come out, it makes for a good time to touch on one of their series. So today, I'm going to be talking about what is my favorite horror comic on the market right now: Nailbiter.

Joshua Williamson has been a busy guy in the past three years. He's been working in comics longer than that, but on 2013 he got onto my radar for writing the excellent supernatural heist comic, Ghosted, and he's been pretty much everywhere since then (this is quite possibly an example of the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon, that thing where once you notice or learn something you see it everywhere, but give me this one). Not only is he writing two other creator owned series for Image, today's subject, Nailbiter, and Birthright, but he's done ongoing work with Dark Horse, short runs on books for Marvel and DC, and recently became the writer of one of Marvel's All New All Different series, Illuminati. So that's a long way of saying he's a busy guy. And I've read a lot of that output, and I have to say, there's no slip in quality.

But it's Nailbiter, along with artist Mike Henderson, that is my favorite thing Williamson is working on. Nailbiter is the story of the town of Buckaroo, Oregon. Buckaroo would be like pretty much any other small town in the Pacific Northwest, except for one little quirk: Buckaroo has spawned sixteen of the most prolific and disturbing serial killer in the record history of serial killers; it seems like the odds of Buckaroo natives who leave becoming serial killers is extremely high. And the most recent of these, and by far the most prolific, is Edward Charles Warren, the Nailbiter, who took forty-six people who bit their nails, and chewed their fingers to the bone before killing them. But by some miracle (maybe a diabolical one) despite being arrested in his murder den, Warren was acquitted of all charges and returned to Buckaroo.

The inciting incident of the series is the disappearance of FBI agent Eliot Carroll, the agent who had hunted down Warren and was obsessed with finding out why the two spawned the Buckaroo Butchers. He called his old friend Nicholas Finch, an NSA agent, to tell him he had discovered the secret and needed him to come to Buckaroo. But by the time Finch arrived, Carroll had disappeared. Finch's investigation partnered with local sheriff Sharon Crane, formed the spine of the early issues of Nailbiter. Through Finch, we get an outsider's view of Buckaroo. Some in the town revel in the history, setting up murder stores, while many just want this whole serial killer thing to go away.

There are two things that really make Nailbiter pop for me: one is the strength of the characters, and the other is how well it plays with the mystery of Buckaroo and the horror tropes spawned it. I'm going to talk about the second point first. Williamson knows his horror. He knows how to ratchet up the tension and give the reader just enough information to keep us coming back, There's never an issue where nothing happens, and even the issues that seem to be one-offs pay off in the larger scheme of the series.

The mystery of Buckaroo is a deep and complicated one, and every time a layer is peeled away, it turns out there's another beneath it. Oh there's an ancient temple buried below the city? That's got to be the source of the evil, some ancient mystical curse. Oh, that's a fake, and there's a history of people with mental illness being brought to Buckaroo by a doctor? That's got to be it! But is it? We still don't know. You'd think that twenty issues of mystery would get frustrating, but it's paced so perfectly and we get enough answers and big reveals that it never feels like the creators are jerking us around.

It's also a strong statement in the book's favor that it feels like it knows not only where it's going, but where it's been. It would be easy to throw together a concept about a town that spawns serial killers and say, "Well, the first was the Book Burner, then there was... a clown guy (yeah, clowns are scary)... a woman... a few others... and then The Nailbiter" But even though we don't know much about most of the Butchers, every time they come up it feels like the creators know all the details about them, about the town, and about what helped build it into the little slice of nightmare that it is.

And its about much more than the mystery. There are big scares along the way. The different killers and the people of Buckaroo are damn scary. Reverend Fairgold, the local preacher, is the kind of guy who believes the ends justify the means, and has a deep hatred for all the Butchers. There is the mysterious Butcher of Buckaroo, a killer who serves The Master, the man seemingly behind all the horrors of Buckaroo (or at least protecting its secrets), a monster of a man who wears leather and a mask with bull horns who seems to appear and disappear at will, knowing the secrets of the city. And we watch various people, good people, being driven slowly insane and violent by being in the proximity of the city.

My greatest weakness as a critic and scholar of comics is that I feel my vocabulary when it comes to art is fairly limited; that's why so many of my reviews focus on story and only make a general comment on art. But for Nailbiter, I really want to stress how important the art is. Mike Henderson, Joshua Willamson's partner on this book, is an incredible artist. His character designs are excellent, he draws people that look like people, all very distinct in both their facial features and their body types. his designs for the Buckaroo Butchers, some of whom could be comical if drawn by an artist with less of a sense of what makes horror, are uniformly terrifying.

Bet beyond his excellent designs, the thing about Henderson's art that really impresses me is his ability to pace out a scene for the most authentic scares. The pages where Finch and Crane investigate the tunnels below Buckaroo (because what self-respecting town of horror doesn't have tunnels?) are a testament to building atmosphere and making a place as much a character, and as important, as any person. But there's a specific scene in issue nine that sticks out as the best jump shock I can remember in a comic ever. Sheriff Crane gets home to find Reverend Fairgold waiting in her house, and after telling him to get lost, she walks into her room to lay down, and as she does her hand falls off the bed, and the next page is a splash of... Oh, you think I'm going to give that away? Let's just say you mix in urban legends with horror comics and you get an amazing page.

Character is a major part of horror. If you don't care about the people who are in danger, then you might get a shock or some revulsion from something gross, but the creeping horror of tension comes partially from being concerned with the people in the situation. And the characters in Nailbiter are all interesting and well rounded.

It would be easy to just assume that Edward Charles Warren was just a monster who is waiting for another chance to kill. But there's so much more to him. He does have this sinister, wicked sense of humor, and doesn't seem to be afraid of Finch, even when he's being threatened with extreme violence. But there's something more to Warren. One thing, he seems to have a code of ethics about his kills. When children take up a Buckaroo tradition and go to poke around at his house on Halloween,they bump into Warren, and when one gets left behind Warren actually takes care of him, bandages his hurts, and tells the boy he doesn't hurt children. More than that, we've never seen him hurt anyone who wasn't a threat in his or her own right. Warren cares about people, having tried at different times to help Buckaroo natives who left the city make it in the outside world. He's definitely not sane, but the mystery of exactly how mad he is and what is going on in his head is as important as the mystery of Buckaroo.

Finch is also a study in contrasts. When Carroll calls him, Finch is actually on forced suspension, waiting for a trial for killing a suspect in custody. Finch is not just an agent, but an interrogator, and while he might deny it at times, he seems to enjoy his work, and has no problem using, to quote A Clockwork Orange, a little bit of the old ultra-violence to get a result. With a temper and a penchant for beating on suspects, it would be easy to think Finch is as bad as any of the Butchers, but he has the tenacity of a dog with a bone when it comes to solving the mystery about his missing friend Carroll, and about what happened to Carroll after he's found. That dedication, both to his friends and his goals, is an admirable trait, but even the most admirable trait can be pushed too far, and as we see with Finch, he's always walking right on that line.

Sheriff Crane is the closest thing the book has to a legitimate hero. She really wants to do her best by the people of Buckaroo. But she's stymied at every corner by the fact that everyone knows that she was high school sweethearts with Warren. The relationship between those two characters is my favorite in the entire comic. It's not exactly will they/won't they, because she knows he's a serial killer, but at the same tie she cuts him more slack than another sheriff would... until she doesn't. Crane is no pushover, and that's another part of her charm. She isn't Marge Gunderson, the smart but sweet sheriff in Fargo. No, Crane is as tough as nails. And her adversarial relationship wit the previously mentioned Rev. Fairgold is another treat. And it's not that she's defined by her relationship with these male characters. Fairgold is defined by his relationship to her.

And while those are the three principle characters in Nailbiter, the cast is larger than that. Carroll and Fairgold are important, as clearly are the Bucther and the Master. FBI Agent Abigail Barker was another tough as nails officer of the law, bit one who ran afoul of the Master, and her arc, as she does her best to fight what he did to her, and the homicidal urges that comes from that, is a heart breaking arc. And then there's Alice. Alice is Buckaroo's local punk/goth girl, fascinated by the Butchers, and most people's suspect for who will be the next Butcher. And Alice is looking at this history because she's afraid they're right. I think Alice is my favorite character in the comic, because she's just so real to me, the ultimate teenage outsider. And when we learn about her family history? Bam, what a reveal!

I know I've talked more about theme than plot here, but so much of Nailbiter's plot is tied up in its serialized mystery narrative I don't want to give too much away. But the uber-plot is never sacrificed for a good story, as there are some really memorable one off issues of the series. Issues six and seven completely sold me on this book; the first five issue arc was great, but when a book can shift gears from a big horror procedural search for a missing FBI agent plot to a one off about Crane and Alice trying to help a girl who wants her baby to be born in Buckaroo so he can be a serial killer, and an issue where Brian Michael Bendis comes to town, and make them all as intense and interesting, well you know it's something special. Issue sixteen, the earlier mentioned Halloween issue, mixes a touch of Stand By Me into the comic for an issue unlike any other in the series. And the last arc, which took Finch and Warren out of Buckaroo, made for a different kind of story, much more of a whodunnit, and really did start giving readers answers. Just not all of them.

I love horror comics, both of the suspense and the supernatural variety. While we still don't know if there's any supernatural aspect to this comic, when it comes to pure suspense, you can't beat Nailbiter. If you like a horror comic with a brain that still doesn't shy away from some gore and a good shock, you couldn't do any better than Nailbiter.

There are three volumes of Nailbiter available right now, which are, in chronological order: There Will Be Blood (Issues 1-5), Bloody Hands (Issues 6-10), and Blood in the Water (Issues 11-15). Volume four, Blood Lust, comes out in April. Nailbiter Volume 1: The Murder Edition HC, collecting the first ten issues of the series in an oversized hardcover, comes out this Wednesday, March 16th.

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