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Route 666 #18 - In-Depth

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Writer: Tony Bedard
Artist: Jim Cheung

Company: CrossGen


Synopsis

A time to honor those sailors and fisherman who have been claimed by the sea, Cape Keel's Remembrance Day celebration has become more a tourist event than a time of solemn prayer and quiet memorial. When Cassie Starkweather arrives in town, you know there's going to be trouble close behind her. In the night, while the taverns are filled with merriment, the briny fog rolls in. It's a night to remember, as the waves reveal their dark secrets.

The net of Perdition closes around her; it's sink or swim time for Cassie. Will the infernal forces reel in a prize catch? Or will Cassie be the one who got away?


Critique

"Well, I was going to spare you the gory details, but since you had to ask. . ."

This title is strongest at establishing a mood of horror towards the unnatural, the alien. When our concepts of reality shatter in the face of the uncanny, there is a brain-freezing sensation of wrongness. Hospital workers are supposed to be healers, not monstrous murderers. The police are here to protect us, not subject us to infernal torment. The dead are at rest, not roaming the streets at night. Encountering the unnatural tells us that everything we believe to be true, our daily experiences, might be a sham. So, what is real?

To quote Poe, "Is all that we see or seem but a dream within a dream?"

Amid the quiet "atomic age" conformity of her world, Cassie has seen the unspeakable. Demons wear human faces, dark spirits stalk the living, and evil pervades every aspect of life. Life as we know it is a hoax. The fašade of security keeps people ignorant as sheep, while the diabolic entities steal their souls. Cassie is aware of this, but she's unaffected. This subverts the premise.

In most elements of story design, this title is excellent. The plots are tight and exciting. The settings are diverse and compelling. The mood is both creepy and campy. The theme of the subversion of the Real is powerful. However, the lynchpin to the successful realization to the title's potential in a strong character portrayal, which is lacking here.

When this title kicked off, Cassie was on the verge of madness, pursued and persecuted by entities that were beyond her comprehension. Reality was unraveling and Cassie was left floundering in horror, desperately fleeing from the unknown. A fugitive from dire forces, her inner conflict was as gripping as all the action going on around her. Not anymore. She's complacent, even though she's aware of the evil that hides under the veneer of normalcy.

It hobbles the entire endeavor. Cassie should be a paranoid wreck. The fugitive concept still holds; the horrific forces of Perdition on hot on her heels. Why isn't she running as fast and as long as she can? She shouldn't be hanging out at a tavern, nonchalantly sipping her drink. Cassie is our immersion point for the experience of the story. If she can sit around unconcerned, then we also get lulled to complacency. This undercuts both the mood and theme of the title.

The plot and setting are still wonderful, but they feel empty. The story is event driven, when it should be mood driven. This is a "horror" title, not a "thriller." It's a fine distinction, but a very important one. Compare two classic Hitchcock movies, "Strangers on a Train" and "The Birds." Although both movies have intensely compelling action, the source of tension for the viewer lies in different areas, resolution of conflict versus exploration of the uncanny, respectively.

The art is attractive and exciting, but also misses out on establishing mood. Set in a coastal fishing town on a day of remembrance, this issue feels like an homage to John Carpenter's classic 1979 move, "The Fog." But the artwork doesn't carry through with the mood of mystery and maritime dread. For instance, the fog is not an active presence in the artwork, except as a slightly muting force that blurs background figures; it has no sense of menace itself.

Likewise, the restless dead that chase Cassie and Cisco through the town are generic zombies, as if they were animated from the local cemetery. Instead, they should have been revulsion inspiring, bloated corpses of the Drowned. They should squish, drip, and burble. It's a small bit of genre emulation, but it would have added a lot to creating a distinctive feel to the issue.

Finally, to belabor the point, there isn't enough fear. Cassie and Cisco look startled and concerned aplenty, but they don't get scared. Yes, they've both got plenty of experience with the supernatural at this point, but being chased by a horde of the undead through the fog shrouded docks ought to break their composure a bit. Stiff facial expression doesn't convey a convincing degree of terror.


Appraisal

"Couldn't sense. . . anything in them. . . no souls."

I like this title. It's stylish, cheeky, and unique. If you're looking for a good, brisk read, with all the trimmings of old school "creature feature" horror, then this is certainly a book to check out. However, it has the potential for being much more than a fun read; this title has the potential for great depth.

It takes its look and mood from the classic "Atomic Horror" B-movie period of the 1950s. Yet, this emulation oftentimes feels soulless. For all its camp, the "Atomic Horror" period was reflecting the concerns of the era. In the hands of a capable director, like Roger Corman, the monsters and situations reflected a social commentary on society and its fear of the alien; it's a metaphor for things like communism, nuclear annihilation, teen angst, sexual liberation, or racial equity. In the hands of a hack, such as Ed Wood, the creatures were just silly suits chasing teens across a drive-in screen.

This title lies in the balance between the two extremes. Bedard's plotlines are too good to ever fall into the gorilla with a diver's helmet silliness, but will these situations ever achieve greater narrative promise? Good supernatural horror makes the flesh crawl with unease. Great supernatural horror goes beyond the creepiness and makes a statement that transcends the story.

Route 666 has the potential for greatness. It hasn't reached it yet, and the past three issues have fallen short of their promise. However, it's certainly attainable. I think this is a title worth reading. So, get hip to this timely tip. Next time you make your comic shop trip, you'll know where to find your kicks.


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