It’s better, down where it’s wetter: ‘The Wake’ & ‘Black is the Color’
Before Scott Snyder began writing Batman and became the hottest writer at DC Comic and an overall direct market darling, garnering high sales and high praise for his work on the title, he was penning the Vertigo series American Vampire. Sharply written and clever in its conception and execution, it infused a longtime staple of fantasy literature with some fresh ideas, and was also both good and well-received (that Stephen King was writing back-ups in it for a while probably didn’t hurt any, either).
Not long ago, Snyder returned to Vertigo for another series scarily reinventing a legendary creature with The Wake, drawn by fellow Sean Murphy (Joe The Barbarian, Punk Rock Jesus, some Hellblazer), with whom Snyder previously collaborated on American Vampire miniseries (2011’s Survival of the Fittest). This time the jump from ordinary to scary is a lot further, as Snyder’s not reinventing vampires, but mermaids of all things.
Well, mer-people, I guess, as they all look rather androgynous, like sci-fi creatures from the black lagoon from the waist up, rather than pretty naked ladies, and, of course, fish from the waist down. Mer-creatures, then. Or maybe mer-monsters.
DC recently collected the first five issues, accounting for the first story arc, into a nice, slim, almost too-cheap-not-to-buy $9.99 trade collection.
As with American Vampire, it looks as if the book will jump around in time a bit, as it opens and ends 200 years in the future, with the bulk of this volume telling the story of the surprising first contact between man and mer-man (and there are several strange digressions to the ancient past, apparently involving contact between cavemen and an advanced civilization the mer-things either descended from or were created by).
Our protagonist for this story arc is Lee Archer, a cetologist who studies the vocalizations of whales and dolphins, suddenly approached by a government agent and recruited to a mysterious top-secret project, along with a diverse team made up of her old boss from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a prominent folklorist and an underwater poacher who hunts endangered animals (and who wouldn’t seem out of place in a Batman comic). Taken by submarine to a “ghost rig” at the bottom of the sea, they’re shown their objective: to make sense of the “mermaid” the government has captured and kept in a tank there.
Things don’t go well for Archer and company, as the mermaid is able to summon a whole school of its kin, including a gigantic mer-monster that sort of confounds the theories about the creatures’ origins that the characters had chatted about — including the old, debunked “aquatic ape” theory of human evolution. By the last page of the trade, we’ve jumped back to the “present” of 200 years in the future, after the surface world seems to have fought and perhaps lost its war with the rediscovered sea creatures.
The script reads like a well-researched, Michael Crichton-esque mass market sci-fi novel, with the scientist characters explaining the alien-things they’re faced with by extrapolating from various real-world snatches of science and folklore, which Snyder has reverse-engineered into a monstrous threat to throw at the fairly captive cast.
Murphy’s artwork is as accomplished as always, if not more so, as he designs a plausible and exciting-looking future, bizarre visions of the past, and a cast of characters that are as unique and distinct as the unusual environments they move through and the threat they face.
At this point, it’s fairly impossible to tell where they’re going with it, but just as hard to resist the desire to find out.
You’ll find a more traditional image of a mermaid in the pages of Julia Gfrörer’s Black is the Color from Fantagraphics, at least in terms of visual appearance, setting and even occupation. A more literate affair told through a stronger fusion of word and image — Gfrörer is both writing and drawing, after all — Black fits easily in with her past comics of romanticism butting up against stark reality, with the fantastic dwelling side by side with the more mundane, only here she gives herself more room to stretch out, and pace the narrative’s presentation for its specific action.
Among Gfrörer’s previous comics were 2011’s Too Dark to See, in which shadowy succubi intrude in a young couple’s relationship, and 2010’s Flesh and Bone, in which a witch tries to comfort a melancholy young man who has lost both his lover and his will to live.
Black also shares the previous works’ thin, scratchy, precise lines filling in the white page — sparsely for characters, more fully for backgrounds, and here almost completley when depicting waves, clouds or night skies. In this story, a pair of sailors from some time in the indeterminite past are set adrift in a dinghy, in an effort to conserve the dwindling rations on board the ship. The stronger and less scared of the two, Warren, outlives his fellow condemned man, and pushes his corpse overboard. He survies much longer than he should when he begins receiving nightly visits from a mermaid, who nurses him on the black milk from her breasts, and with whom he spends the last days of his life, more or less in love with her, and she with him.
Warren’s shipmates eventually encounter disaster, in a scene in which more mermaids are present, and Gfrörer reveals their more capricious, even vicious nature, as they make catty, mean girl remarks about the drowning and dying sailors and, in the world below the waves, act anachronisticly like high school or college queen bees (Flesh and Bone similarly had at least one character, a demon, who spoke as if from our time, while dwelling in the past of the book’s setting).
Romantic, tragic, elegiac and beautiful, one could scarcely ask for more from a book, comic or otherwise.