THIS WEEK: If you like scary (and who doesn’t?), here’s a look at two of the new Hill House horror comics — Daphne Byrne and The Dollhouse Family.
Note: the reviews below contain spoilers. If you want a quick, spoiler-free buy/pass recommendation on the comics in question, check out the bottom of the article for our final verdict.
Daphne Byrne #1
Written by: Laura Marks
Art by: Kelley Jones
Colors by: Michelle Madsen
Lettering by: Rob Leigh
Kelley Jones was just born to draw horror stories, wasn’t he? Haunting and otherworldly, his pages are exaggerated in the slightest of ways as if seen through a fisheye lens or a two-way circus mirror. Borders hand-drawn, ink stains left in the gutters, shadows pooling in every nook of a tree trunk or blanket. Everyday scenes take on a charge of eldritch fantasy under his pen. When he really lets loose, Jones can plunge the reader into a hellscape of demons and skeletons and unhinged madmen. He’s one of those artists you recognize the moment you see his work — it’s a very unique style and an absolutely perfect fit for this book.
What’s presented here, in this signature fashion, is Victorian London. Horse-drawn carriages and oil lamps, a setting that’s immediately creepy in its own right. Young Daphne Byrne, who’s more comfortable sitting in the creeping shadows at her father’s grave than gossiping with other girls at school, seems to have drawn the attention of a…ghost? A demon, perhaps? Whatever it is, it’s going to teach her the lessons they don’t mention in a prim and proper girls’ school. It’s going to show her how to make the dark sacrifices it takes to make sense of a pointless world.
Daphne Byrne #1 is an intriguing debut that quickly makes the reader feel the despair throughout the Byrne family’s household. There’s an empty hole where Daphne’s father once was, and she has lost the only person in her life who understood her. She still talks to him as if he were there, perhaps hoping that wishing him back hard enough might be enough. Her mother isn’t much better off, allowing herself to be conned by so-called occultists who promise to help her reach beyond the veil. The finances are running out and the real world is looking bleaker and bleaker. Desperation is a dangerous place to be.
Macabre is the word that springs to mind. The mood, the expressions, the setting, all of it. The coloring really helps to ground the story in an eerie somberness, especially in the greyed-out horde of lumbering ghouls and the earthy tangle of roots creeping across the graveyard. The lettering in the nightmare sequence hovers over a luminous patch of glowing yellow that fades into nothing at the edges. The panels of Daphne Byrne are a mismatch of weird angles, uncomfortable close-ups, unusual perspectives. Even without reading the words, you can feel the emotional weight of the story.
As far as first issues go, Daphne Byrne has the makings of a memorable, haunting tale.
The Dollhouse Family #3
Writer: M.R. Carey
Layouts: Peter Gross
Finishes: Vince Locke
Colors: Cris Peter
Letters: Todd Klein
When I was growing up, my sisters had a dollhouse. It was made out of wood by my crafty grandfather when we were very young. It opened in the front and had little furniture and even an attic that stored their dolls. So I know firsthand what a creepy thing it is to have a tiny replica of a house inside one of the rooms of your house. The Dollhouse Family is successfully bringing back all of those unsettling memories for me.
Creepy is really the best way to describe the mood of this book so far, though the intensity is ratcheting up quickly and full-on horror doesn’t feel like it’s too far behind. The dollhouse is talking now, and it’s started taking prisoners. It’s showing up on doorsteps as Alice is trying to be rid of it and beginning to look like it might be made of blood. Or placenta.
The tale being woven around this toy goes back centuries and more, with demons and fallen gods and a bloodline that was cursed by a momentary weakness in an otherwise sturdy man’s resolve. One of the reasons the book seems so rich is the number of plotlines that it leaves dangling along the way, teasing the reader each issue with a bit of new knowledge and no more. New layers are constantly being added as we run alongside the story and try to keep up. Why is Alice seeing visions of her father now? Will Joseph’s dark plan make things better or worse? And what the heck is up with the cat?
As sprawling as the tale is becoming, a horror’s got no hold on you unless you care about the people being terrorized. The little family moments are the real genius here, as they sound so genuine and heartwarming. Mothers speak affectionately to their daughters in silly jokes and pet names, protecting them from the evils of their worldly surroundings with simple spells of everyday love. I dearly hope nothing happens to little Chloe, which almost certainly means that something dreadful will.
The Dollhouse Family is a series of earnest questions: Where can we find safety when the threat is our very home? How far do our mistakes echo down through the generations? And what are we willing to do to protect our family from itself?
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