The Wraith by Joe Hill (writer) and Charles Paul Wilson III (artist)
The Wraith is a horror comic book based on Joe Hill’s novel NOS4A2, and I can’t tell you how much I dislike horror as a general rule. However, this book is absolutely brilliant, and I loved it. I have not read the novel, and probably won’t, so you don’t need to have read it to appreciate this comic book. I went in as a resistant reader, but since I’ve learned over the past few years that I do like some horror comics such as Hellblazer (but never horror movies because of the sound) and since I’ve read enough Locke and Key to have a good opinion of Joe Hill, I gave The Wraith a chance when it showed up as review book. I’m glad I did.
The story is about Charlie Talent Manx III, a man who suffers a series of major disappointments in life. The final blow is being taken in by a scam that leaves him destitute: He is told that he is investing in Christmasland, a theme park that will make him a ton of money. He buys a nice car, the Rolls Royce Wraith of the title, and dresses as a chauffeur to drive his two daughters and his understandably angry wife to the theme park. When he gets there, he finds two large candy-cane decorations acting as an entrance to an empty lot with all the trees chopped down. But Charlie mysteriously connects with the Wraith: They have a combined power capable of imagining into existence a Christmasland theme park that is so creepy I imagine it would scare even the Joker. Artist Charles Paul Wilson III really shines in his visual creation of Christmasland. The creepiest part of the theme park, however, is not the physical aspect: The inhabitants are all the children Charlie “saves” from around the country. They change into little monster kids with white skin and razor-sharp teeth, and they don’t age, nor can they die apparently.
If Christmasland and Charlie Manx were the most important of the book, it would merely be a book to shock, and I wouldn’t like it at all. There’s another set of characters that make this a rich, compelling story. Two police officers are transporting in a van three prisoners. Through a series of insane mishaps, they end up in Charlie’s car, and he takes them to Christmasland where they must figure out how to escape a theme park hell (though I’m of the opinion that most theme parks are hell). Joe Hill’s excellent story really takes off as he interrupts this main plot with backstories of the various prisoners, one with whom we empathize and one with whom we definitely do not.
The book starts off more text-heavy than I normally like in a comic book. I want the images to convey a good portion of the narrative information so I don’t feel like I’m reading an illustrated story, which to me isn’t the best type of sequential art. Eventually the images become more essential to the story as the text is reduced to conversational exchanges between characters, and the comic picks up its pace. Every now and then, Hill returns to reliance on text, but it’s spread out in a nice balance through the rest of the book. The final chapter of the graphic novel, however, is almost all text: It’s a short story with a few images spread out along the margins of the story. I think it works well, and by the time the reader gets to this final chapter, she knows enough about all the characters to want to read the short story. This final short story took the comic from a four-star rating to a five-star rating for me. I don’t want to spoil anything, but this story ties together characters throughout the comic by giving us the backstory of a character we think is very minor early in the comic. I loved this short story and the way Joe Hill provides all these connections.
The best part of the story is that Joe Hill uses all this horror to tell the backstory of one particular prisoner and to put him in a hiding place in Christmasland with one of the officers, a tough, sixty-five year old woman whom we learn to greatly respect, as does the prisoner. They make a human connection that is incredibly moving. It feels real, not contrived, and the horror of Christmasland heightens this emotional connection, showing us something about the best in humanity.
This book is a must-read for horror fans, but I want to make a plea to those of you who may have a negative reaction to horror. For most of my life, I never liked horror much beyond some Poe. But I’ve started to appreciate Lovecraft and pulp fiction horror writers. More importantly, my reading of comics has allowed me to understand what all the fuss is about horror: Reading Hellblazer, Swamp Thing, The Walking Dead, The Darkness, Preacher, and certain story arcs in Sandman has shown me how good horror is capable of artistically communicating ideas not open to other genres. Though I will never be able to watch horror movies because of the sounds and because I can’t control the pace of the narrative, I get a chance to experience the visual elements of horror through comic books. As long as I keep running across well-written horror comics like Joe Hill’s The Wraith, I will continue to keep giving horror comics a chance. So, if you are someone who doesn’t like horror films, know that horror comics may be an excellent alternative, or at least a more accessible entry-point to the genre.
This is a great review, Brad. I tend to stay away from horror but I’ve been finding lately, too, that I can handle some of it. So I’ll add this to my list!
Thanks for reading and leaving a comment, Kate!
I started reading comics because of my teaching a course in noir fiction, and my reading comics over the past eight years has led me to enjoy genres I have never read much: Science Fiction and Fantasy in addition to horror. Because comics started out at the same time as the pulps and employed the same genres plus superheroes, current comics work well with all these genres. From what i can tell, comics would have developed right along with the pulps in being books for adults except that the Comics Code came along and put out of business all the mature titles leaving only superhero comics and westerns and romance. Goodbye serious horror, crime, and war stories, all HUGE sellers before the Comics Code. Comics would probably be written for and read by most types of people as in Japan if that damn comics code hadn’t happened. There’s an excellent book that talks about this subject called The Ten-Cent Plague: TheGreat Comic Book Scare and How It Changed America by David Hajdu.