Sanctum, from French/American graphic novel publisher Humanoids, is equal parts Lovecraftian horror and Mignola blackness with a touch of Prometheus mixed in with a military thriller.
Fifteen years from now, the American atomic submarine U.S.S. Nebraska responds to a distress call from a long-lost Soviet sub. The signal initially seems to come from nowhere, but it soon becomes evident that the call is coming from the middle of an abysmal ocean cave. The Nebraska barely squeezes through the gaps in the cave, in a series of thrilling and intense scenes, before emerging into the sanctum of this book’s title, a vast series of caverns in which an ancient civilization lived, only to become extinct.
All the while, the bizarre mystical creepies that live in the caverns are seen only in the shadows, in fleeting glimpses, suffused by artist Christophe Bec in stygian, all-consuming darkness. What we see of these strange beings is frightening, particularly because we seldom actually see them directly. That accentuates the fear that these beings create and emphasize the otherworldly horrors that live down in the oceans on our planet.
Christophe Bec is called upon to create an extremely diverse palette of art here, from realistic faces to strange creatures to many scenes of the submarine passing through caves. He does his work beautifully, presenting the world in all of its complexity while depicting all the elements in powerful strokes. It may be the finest tribute I can give him that at times Bec’s art reminds me of Mike Mignola’s in its deeply engrossing use of blacks to accentuate a creepy plot. I’d never heard of the man but he’s damn good.
Mix in an intriguing subplot about how in the hell the Nebraska will emerge from its cavern and what emerges is a complex, thoughtful and satisfying multilayered narrative that is the perfect length at its 200 pages. The biggest flaw in the book is in its rushed ending, in which all of the previous build-up gets resolved extremely quickly – so quickly that I think I experienced a little whiplash.