Story and Art by Kris Straub
Callum Waterhouse ’18 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer
Really good horror can make you afraid of everyday things. Sure, when most of us think of horror, we think of zombies or vampires, but it’s easy to make us scared of zombies or vampires. They are unnatural. They are frightening because we know on some instinctual level that they should not exist. But the most skilled crafters of horror can evoke these feelings from things which we encounter every day. How many lifelong swimmers were scared to go to the beach after seeing Jaws? How many of us were never able to look at children the same way again after seeing The Orphan?
Psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud referred to this process as “the uncanny.” The uncanny is one of the most memorable forms of horror because it works on a much more basic level. It is the process by which the brain recognizes something as familiar, but also recognizes this thing to be imperfect, different, and grotesque–a monstrous imitation of something comforting and safe. The uncanny is at the core of Kris Straub’s deviously brilliant webcomic, Broodhollow.
Straub is no stranger to horror, having penned the virally popular short story Candle Cove. He is also the author of the now completed webcomic, Starslip, which became well known thanks to its cartoonish art style and surreal, often non-sequitur humor. But while Starslip is a rollicking, humorous space opera, Straub’s latest project is a stab at Lovecraftian horror, which is good, because as it turns out, cartoonish art and surreal humor fit with Lovecraftian horror like chocolate fits with peanut butter.
Broodhollow is set in the United States during the Great Depression. At the start of the comic, our protagonist, Wadsworth Zane, works as an unsuccessful door-to-door encyclopedia salesman, literally bringing people knowledge they do not want. At the start of the comic, Wadsworth receives a letter informing him of the death of his Great Uncle Virgil, and that Wadsworth has just inherited his antique shop, located in the small town of Broodhollow.
Once he gets there, however, Wadsworth learns that there is something just not quite right with the town. While the people of Broodhollow are friendly enough, the town is awash in strange behavioral ticks and odd holidays that run just on the wrong side of quaint. Before he is there for even two days, Wadsworth finds himself surrounded on all sides by strange monsters, supernatural legends and secret societies. Soon, Wadsworth realizes that this town is at the heart of a grand, supernatural mystery, and he is anyone’s only hope of stopping the dark forces at work.
Or maybe he isn’t. One of the comic’s greatest appeals is the fact that Wadsworth is not the most reliable narrator. From his first appearance, it becomes clear that our hero suffers from a severe form of obsessive compulsive disorder. Kris Straub is a smart enough writer to know when to spell things out and when to let the reader draw their own opinions.
Straub’s artwork is simplistic and highly stylized, which fits perfectly with the story and tone. Most characters’ faces are drawn with only a few well placed squiggles, thus giving them a familiar yet somewhat off-putting look to them. The artwork seems to evoke the style of the old newspaper comics that were popular at the time when the story is set, and this even extends into the format of the pages themselves. Each page consists of two rows, usually containing four to six panels each. The pages themselves really do feel like something you would have found on a Sunday morning newspaper in 1938, right in between Krazy Kat and Little Orphan Annie. Straub even adds a washed-out look to the color palette, adding to both the old-time feel and the unearthly atmosphere.
So far, this sounds like the perfect comic, but Broodhollow is not without its flaws. The main problem stems from the fact that this is a very word-heavy comic, which should not be a problem by itself. In fact, Kris Straub has a marvelous ear for dialogue. However, the reason many great cartoonists began moving away from the styles afforded to them by newspaper comics is that those older strips were severely limited in the amount of words they could put in a panel without getting in the way of the art. Since comics moved into the world of magazines and later webcomics, creators have been given the freedom to fit more words on the page than before, but Broodhollow tries to have it both ways. By combining the dialogue-heavy writing of modern comics with the compressed style of older comics, Straub often ends up with overcrowded pages. There are simply too many instances in this comic of the dialogue crowding out the artwork and in a comic where the artwork is this good, that can only work against the finished result.
Still, these gripes are minor at best. At the end of the day, Broodhollow is a dark, funny, and consistently brilliant series that will leave you checking for updates week after week. You may not have known you were looking for a kooky, Lovecraftian mystery webcomic, but after checking into this town, you will wonder why there aren’t more just like it.