As a rule, horror comics do not scare me.
That isn’t me trying to be tough; when it comes to horror movies, I’m a joke. I watch through my hands, on fast forward, or on mute. Most commonly, I just don’t watch at all. But without the music, the sudden cuts, or the jump scares, comics rarely have the same effect on me. Horror comics may deliver splash pages with gruesome and unsettling images, but being squeamish is not the same as being afraid.
In preparation for Comictober, I read a LOT of horror comics, often reinforcing my opinions above. However, some stood apart. Not the comics that showed scary things, but the ones that left them in the shadows. In such a visual medium, it’s easy to rely on images to frighten the audience. But, as with prose fiction, the best horror writers are those that know there is nothing scarier than the reader’s own imagination. What I have learnt on this adventure is that Garth Ennis is one of those writers.
Before picking up A Walk Through Hell, I was mostly familar with Ennis’s bigger works. As a 17 year old, Preacher was my mind-blowing introduction to comics for grown-ups. The Boys went even more outrageous and gross. His Punisher MAX run dialled down the cartoonish excess, but retained the dark humour and adult content. I still reread and enjoy these, but sometimes cringe while doing so. The storytelling, dialogue and characterisation remain excellent, but other elements are highly problematic viewed as an adult in 2020 rather than a teen in the 00s. Homophobic and racist stereotypes are brushed aside with the old South Park excuse of ‘he makes fun of EVERYONE’. This makes them no less uncomfortable to read. Meanwhile, the graphic violence and sex sometimes seem shocking for the sake of it. With Preacher, he was no doubt enjoying the freedom from censorship newly available to comic creators on Vertigo. But seeing him continue the same shtick for several years, it’s hard not to feel like he was trying too hard to be edgy.
All of these points meant that I had reservations about what a 2018 Garth Ennis comic would look like. Given the way Aftershock’s A Walk Through Hell went under the radar on release, perhaps I wasn’t alone in this. But delving in, it did seem that he’s moved with the times. Those of a sensitive disposition should be aware however; this is still Garth Ennis. There is gruesome violence, often involving children. Some throwaway lines of dialogue are clearly there to shock. And, of course, he devotes a lot of time to tearing into religion. But after the first of 12 issues, I realised I definitely shouldn’t have doubted his ability to put together an excellent read.
I mentioned storytelling and dialogue as strong points in Ennis’s earlier work. This book contains some of his best. Reading some other horror comics that I won’t name, I became deeply fed up of overly expositional dialogue. In real life, people do not regularly summarise their own backstories and relationships. Nobody actually says “listen, I know we’re childhood friends who moved to the big city together, but…” A Walk Through Hell was incredibly refreshing on this point. We join characters in the middle of natural, flowing dialogue. They do not force each other’s names into conversation as a signpost for the reader. Sometimes this meant I had to flip back a few pages to confirm that a character we’d just met was one who’d been mentioned earlier. This is fine, and far better than the alternative. I’d rather feel like I’m putting together a (simple) puzzle than have the immersion be broken by clichés.
In the initial issues, this approach applies not only to the character names, but to the plot. The federal agents at the centre of the story discuss their case without summing it up at the start of every conversation. Some readers may feel slightly disorientated at first, but I believe this is intentional. Without giving too much away, A Walk Through Hell is about a pair of FBI partners, who one night get into a strange predicament that appears to relate to one of their old investigations. Around half the story takes the form of flashbacks. Again, these are signposted organically via strong storytelling and art choices, rather than constant captions. The paranormal horrors of the present-day story contrast well with the grisly killings investigated in the flashbacks.
I may have laboured the point about the lack of exposition, but it adds a key factor that is essential for a story to be truly frightening: realism. It’s one of many ways this book remains grounded to reality. Early on, an atrocity occurs and we see snippets of Twitter reactions to it. This is by no means an original device, but A Walk Through Hell was the first time I’ve had the impression of reading real tweets. They quickly descend into a ‘debate’ that will feel depressingly familiar to anyone who’s spent time on the site.
Politics play a huge part in this story. Flashbacks take place before and after November 2016, and Trump is mentioned by name. One of the main characters is vocally liberal, and argues with others who are politically apathetic. At times, I was pleasantly surprised to see Ennis seeming borderline ‘woke’. He takes shots at racism, homophobia and misogyny in America, and particularly within law enforcement. Readers of Preacher will remember that he has always attacked explicit bigotry. Here however, there are moments where he goes further and calls out the subtle and insidious elements. Despite strong anti-Trump themes, A Walk Through Hell contains criticisms of the left as well as the right. Ennis stops short of going full ‘both sides’, but does offer food for thought. But the Western world’s descent into fully partisan political warfare is alluded to throughout the book; an element of horror that is likely to hit close to home for many readers.
Goran Sudžuka’s art on this comic is excellent. Best known as the go-to fill-in artist on Y: The Last Man, he really shines here on a book of his own. Eyes and facial expressions are clearly a specialty, and frequent closeups use this to full effect. His style has adapted nicely for Ennis; big-eyed psychopaths and weak-chinned cowards evoke memories of Steve Dillon on Preacher, but with a clean, modern twist. Sudžuka appears to have taken inking duties too, and his use of shadows is perfect throughout. Ive Svorcina’s great colouring work goes hand in hand with the inks to make the flashbacks so easy to distinguish from the present day.
For the first 7 or 8 issues, A Walk Through Hell is terrifying and gripping because of what it isn’t showing you or telling you. In the third act, when more details emerge, things fall apart slightly. This is, if anything, because the earlier parts are TOO good; Ennis painted himself into a bit of a corner. As millions of people discovered watching Lost, sometimes a mystery is so enthralling that no resolution can truly satisfy. Nevertheless, the ride is more than enjoyable enough to make up for a weak ending. Short enough to devour in a couple of hours, this book would make a great read on any Halloween. The political references may one day date it, but on Halloween 2020, with the election a few days away? There will never be a better time to dive in.