The Wake and the True Power of Comic Books

wake1My love of superhero stories has been well-documented, so it probably shouldn’t be surprising to any of you that I am also a big fan of comic books as an art form. However, many of my favorite comics stories are not superhero stories at all, despite superheroes still being the dominant subject matter in the comics world, and many of my favorite creators are recognized at least as much for their original non-superhero work. One of my favorite comic book writers right now is Scott Snyder, who (besides his amazing work with Batman) is best known for his terrific American Vampire series. I’ve also developed a great appreciation for artist Sean Murphy, who really blew me away with his incisive and gorgeous Punk Rock Jesus. Just last month the two of them completed another project called The Wake, a 10-issue miniseries which, in spite of its relatively short length, is one of the more ambitious and epic stories I’ve seen in awhile, in any medium. Having just finished reading it myself, I realized how The Wake demonstrates exactly what makes comics stand out as a form of storytelling from all others.

While I enjoy storytelling in every medium, comics will always hold a special place in my heart for being an impressive balance between the written word of novels and the visual storytelling of film. In comics, the storytellers are able to provide specific images for each moment, in ways that are more tightly defined than the constant movement of film and more tactile than the suggestive language of pure prose. Comics are able to summon amazing, unreal visual moments without having to worry about cost, and are able to more definitively depict their ideas than even the best novels are able to (relying as they do on the individual imaginations of each reader). And in comics, a balance is (usually) struck between the usually solitary authorship of a novel and the great collaborative elements of filmmaking: here the writer and artist by default collaborate together to bring out the best in each others’ work, while still having more autonomy than even the smallest independent filmmakers tend to have. The Wake demonstrates all of these strengths of the art form, and most importantly does so in service of a compelling, emotional story.

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The story in question is an audacious mix of folklore, marine science, dystopia and horror all under the very broad banner of science fiction. It’s divided into two major sections: the first half takes place around the present day as Dr. Lee Archer and a group of scientists and government agents are pitted against a horrific mer-man, while the second half jumps forward to the far future and follows a young scavenger named Leeward as she tries to save humanity from being swallowed up by the ocean and its monstrous inhabitants. Either one of these segments could have been a full story in their own right, and the fact that Snyder chose to combine them into one massive narrative is exactly the sort of out-of-the-box storytelling that I love to see in comics. In their respective sections, Archer and Leeward are both terrific protagonists, each driven by traumas in their youth to try and solve the mysteries of the ocean; they are very similar to each other while still feeling like distinctive personalities, which adds to the elliptical nature of the story. Furthermore, Snyder has a great talent for establishing memorable side characters very quickly, giving the world a greater sense of depth (yeah, sea pun, I know) and giving the reader plenty of other personalities to latch onto besides the protagonists… which even with strong protagonists is a good thing to have.

But of course in comics, the script is only half of the story, and thankfully for The Wake the other half is handled by Sean Murphy, who is quickly becoming one of my favorite sequential artists. Between his own Punk Rock Jesus (which in retrospect I regret not writing about here) and his upcoming work on Rick Remender’s Tokyo Ghost, Murphy has shown quite a talent for depicting lived-in dystopias, and that talent is fully on display here as well. Smartly, there is a noticeable difference in his style between the first section in the present day and the second section in the far future: while the former is much darker and claustrophobic (befitting the tight quarters of an undersea oil rig), the latter is much brighter and more open (better to capture the sprawling vistas of a flooded world). Not to mention Murphy’s compositions are gorgeous, particularly in the way he handles the hallucinations and dream sequences scattered throughout the story. These moments are disorienting while still making sense, allowing the reader to feel the horror and confusion of the heroes without losing the narrative thread in the process. The art is arranged in such a seamless fashion that it was effortless for me to imagine how it might look in motion, with real people… and yet Murphy’s style is strong enough that I never lost sight of it when I did.

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Even with the current breakthrough of superhero films into the definitive mainstream, I’m sure plenty of people still dismiss comics themselves as kids’ stuff, or as lowest-common-denominator art with no real cultural value. For those of you who do not read many comics, I would tell you to consider stories like The Wake, which is as audacious and mature a story as you’ll find in the geek-o-sphere. It’s a comic that, besides the engaging characters and gorgeous art, has a very clear and moving message about human nature, and how we confront the concept of the unknown. It’s a story about two women, separated by centuries, as they stare into the abyss, driven by hope to seek out answers that might never be found. Through it all, The Wake is everything that is exciting and compelling about the comic book medium, and it would behoove you all to give it a read. I promise you won’t be disappointed.

All 10 issues of The Wake are available on Comixology right now, so get on that shit.

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