Just Beyond: The Scare School
Writer: R.L. Stine
Artists: Kelly & Nichole Matthews
Letterer: Mike Fiorentino
Cover Artist: Julian Totino Tedesco
I was curious and optimistic when I heard of the BOOM! Studios release of a series of graphic novels written by R.L. Stine. Stine’s popular Goosebumps series had been a staple of my childhood and I remember fondly reading those books in my room at night and getting small shivers of fright and bursts of laughter when the stories were good. They were fun to read for the most part, had enough twists and supernatural elements to entertain, were mysterious enough to be good entry level thrillers and, more importantly, they helped get me exposed to more interesting and more complex thriller and horror literature.
Goosebumps gave me an appetite for the supernatural which fueled my teenage reads of King, Lovecraft, Rice, Poe, Jackson, Christie and countless others. It was a gateway book series to move onto better books. This move away from Goosebumps wasn’t something that happened to me alone; sales of the series were strong for a few years in the mid-90s and plummeted in early 2000. The audience fled and didn’t really come back despite multiple attempts at reinvigorating the brand. The idea of a graphic novel, a format popular with today’s youth*, felt like a stroke of genius and the exact thing this series needed to come back from the dead.
In this first graphic novel, Just Beyond: The Scare School (hereafter Scare School), a group of three 12-year-olds in old-fashioned clothes are trying to escape a school by trying to blend in with the students and avoid getting caught by intimidating robot-dogs (called Drogg in a surprisingly self-aware pun). While their escape doesn’t go as planned, they interact with three students, Jess, Josh and Marco, who end up being embroiled in their nightmarish story about what happens at the nightmarish Scare Middle School. They are soon embroiled in a tense escape of their own that will change their life forever.
The biggest hurdle to Scare School is that the frights and laughs of the typical R.L. Stine’s books didn’t translate very well to the illustrated page. Part of it may be that the charm of Goosebumps lied in the unseen and in the connection with the protagonist. You can read a description of a monster and imagine how that monster would look like, letting your imagination fill the blanks. But in Scare School, the spookiest parts are illustrated, leaving very little to the imagination.
The requirement of an illustrated tale means you have to sacrifice uncertainty for visual clarity and it did a disservice to the book. The story does have a twist in that the characters we are first introduced to aren’t our protagonists, the story takes a sharp turn and focus it’s attention on Jess, Josh and Marco rather than the two characters we meet in the beginning. This puts a bit of distance between the reader and the story. Knowing the fate of these characters raise the stakes for our trio of young students, and it is a good twist, but it also means we focus a shocking amount of time on characters we can’t really get attached to.
Artists Kelly and Nichole Matthews provide a solid structure for this graphic novel. Their figures are expressive, movement is clear, character design is interesting, colours and lighting are sharp. BOOM! Studios picked the perfect pair of artists to bring this book to life. There’s a cleanliness to their lines that makes this book very appealing. What mitigates their strength is the need for clarity I’ve mentioned earlier, it leaves little to the imagination, but it
There are a lot of positives about the book. I was pleasantly surprised to see this it appear in the top 500 bestselling comics of 2019. It’s tricky; I’m not sure that Scare School balances the multiple aspects of spookiness, fantasy, adventure and fun as well as it could. It’s also a very short book, which doesn’t help in building tension. As readers, we don’t get to spend enough time with the characters.
However, this graphic novel is enjoyable and there is plenty of room for improvement, I think they’ll get there and make a stellar book in their upcoming second entry. The second graphic novel Just Beyond: The Horror at Happy Landings looks like a major improvement already. As to whether or not it continues to appeal to younger readers in a world of Dog Man and of Raina Telgemeier’s hits, we’ll just have to wait and see.
*I can’t believe how old I felt writing “the youth” in a review. I felt my beard turn grey and my hairline receding.