Children of the Woods
Writer: Joe Ciano
Artist: Josh Hixson
Colorist: Roman Stevens
Letterer: Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou
Dark Horse Comics
Some of the best stories about human-made monsters remind audiences that the source of their evil lies in their humanity. The bad doesn’t necessarily just come out of nowhere and make a good person turn to the dark against their will. It usually feeds on what’s already there from the original personality and then grows from there. Joe Ciano and Josh Hixson’s Children of the Woods contemplates this idea and finds that monsters are at their scariest when they succumb to one of the most human desires in existence: power.
Children of the Woods is set in a small town that houses a legend about a cursed woman’s spirit and a dangerous book that brings those who use it into her domain. Among the town’s residents are Amber and Quinn, two high schoolers that are going through the motions of all the horrible things that come with the dreaded teenage years, especially in terms of the power imbalances that engulf the age group.
Quinn plays the part of the bullied kid, complete with having feelings for a girl that’s already in a relationship with a bully. While the setup might set off worries of cliché and of reading more of the same, the story takes a few early turns that puts its characters on different and more complex paths.
Quinn finds a book that shifts the power imbalance of his existence at the cost of becoming a monster, but just how complete the ensuing transformation ends up being colors the story differently, especially in how the decision affects other characters tied to his situation.
Perhaps the most surprising development is Amber’s reaction to Quinn’s new reality. Ciano and Hixson don’t turn the narrative into Beauty and the Beast where Quinn becomes the misunderstood monster and Quinn the moral savior of the beast.
Instead, they home in on Amber to explore how the same promise of power that took over Quinn can be highly infectious, especially for those that are unsatisfied with the rough conditions of their lives. Monsters aren’t just metaphors for power. They can also represent an escape, an idea that’s carefully woven into the narrative.
Ciano’s script is deeply invested in keeping its characters in a constant state of danger and it helps create for a reading experience that’s both tense and highly emotional, more so as we get to witness each character wrestle with the corruption they’ve accumulated through their actions. There’s an interest in capturing the weight of sacrifice when pursuing something monstrously powerful, regardless of whether the justifications for it don’t necessarily put certain characters in the ‘absolute evil’ category.
Hixson’s art is completely in synch with Ciano’s characterizations as his illustrations imbue the more monstrous elements of the story with a sense of vulnerability that sets the stage for more nuanced bits of character development. That’s not to say the comic’s monsters can’t be brutal. Scenes of violence are striking and the more gruesome panels pack a punch that also add layers of meaning to the events. And yet, they carry trauma and tragedy as well, things that haunt each character in a progressive manner. Readers would do well to linger on character expressions and body language. A lot of thought was put into them.
Fans of classic horror myths that oppress isolated towns or other small places will find a lot to take in with Children of the Woods. The story of the hanging cursed woman of the woods is given a fair amount of time to develop and it feels like a fully-formed tale hidden within the main plot. It further drenches the book in darkness and creates a particular kind of horror that speaks to how much history our deeply human problems still carry with them.
Children of the Woods is a slow burn that invites readers to reconsider how much darkness they’re willing to take in a story. The rewards are plentiful, though. Closing the book wasn’t enough for me to feel I was done with the story. It has a pull that very convincingly brings you back for another read. From experience, it’s better to just indulge it and go back for another stroll through the dark woods.
Published by Dark Horse Comics, Children of the Woods is due out in bookstores on Tuesday, February 1st, and in comic shops on Wednesday, February 9th.