Bloodborne: Death By Sleep
Writer: Ales Kot
Artist: Piotr Kowalski
Publisher: Titan Comics
Initial Release: 10/23/18
“Awakening in an ancient city plagued by a twisted endemic – where horrific beasts stalk the shadows and the streets run slick with the blood of the damned – a nameless Hunter embarks on a dangerous quest in search of Paleblood… his only escape from the endless Night of the Hunt…”
WARNING: The following contains spoilers for the Bloodborne video game.
There’s a very particular type of game in the likes of FromSoftware‘s colloquially named “SoulsBorne” series. These are the titles under the Dark Souls moniker and Bloodborne, whose prospect of a sequel has been highly anticipated, but never confirmed. They’re wildly popular not just for their grim aesthetics and unique storytelling, but arguably mostly for their notorious difficulty. There’s a growing number of games like this, where you are all but tormented in your push for progression. But this developer has its own flavor and has solidified their place of power and respect.
If at first you don’t succeed, die, die again.
So how does such a grueling, interactive experience translate to comics? Quite well, actually. The artwork is incredibly raw, using a great deal of etching and rough texture, matching the themes of gore and pestilence. Kowalski makes great use of stark blacks to indicate the enigmatic shadows veiling every macabre detail of this flaming, decayed world. The actions are a little stiff in places, but I do feel he depicts battle sequences well. It’s a grisly, dark, dirty mess that’s just unnervingly mesmerizing.
In the appropriate time of late October 2018, the first of four Bloodborne trade comics was released. I actually pre-ordered the book, wondering what it might contain. See Bloodborne, to myself and many others, has a fascinating story. You could go by most of a playthrough without truly touching on most of it, as the narrative isn’t fully presented, not outright. You meet enemies with no inherent explanation of what they are or how they came to be, only a vague idea that the plague transformed people into beasts. But what started that plague? Why are locals hold up in their homes and saying your kind are to blame? A lot of the explanations come from careful examination of what some characters DO say to you along with item descriptions. Some would say part of what’s so engaging about Bloodborne‘s story is that its narrative is somewhat incomplete, it’s piecemeal, fragmented. So again, how does this look in a comic?
Well, Bloodborne being an interactive medium and a particularly engaging genre, it stands to reason your protagonist should be someone that can be sutured into. The hunter has no name and, despite what the back of the book blurb says, has no specified gender either. I found that to be a nice touch storytelling wise and as a nod to the franchise’s RPG roots. The hunter could be anyone. The narrative detail I’m suggesting is to say that, in context of this story, our protagonist is stuck in a haze; an unending loop of kill, die, kill again, with no foreseeable salvation. It’s almost as if he or she has forgotten what got them in this situation and even who he or she was, that they’ve seen these horrors time and time again to the point of absolute desensitization. I interpret this as the character having suffered so much trauma that their mind has fragmented and faded, only maintaining the important things: how to survive and the one clue given to break the cycle- “Seek Paleblood” is stated as the goal in the comic and game with almost nothing else to go on from there. More on that later…
But the mental strain of repeating the same scenarios over and over with no end in sight is a deep, existential concept touched on in things like the movie Groundhog Day, albeit lightheartedly, but are delved deeper into by the likes of Edge of Tomorrow. If you repeat the same day over and over, there may be fear and even novelty, but as it continues, unrelenting, your psyche feels the pressure. The Stargate SG1 episode Time Loop explores that in a brief, amusing way, see the attached clip. Now the aforementioned Tom Cruise scifi flick is one of my favorites, but its the source material (a highly-recommended read by yours truly,) that sincerely delves into the mental undoing of witnessing traumatic events over and over, inescapable even through death. This is a long-winded way of saying The Death of Sleep captures a mix of unending strives to move forward and near-complete, trauma-induced apathy in its protagonist. This makes the fleeting moments of the hunter’s shock all the more striking, truly impressing a sense of desperation upon the reader.
Naturally, as this is perhaps intended to be supplementary to the game story, there are encounters with several key figures in the game. As the hunter butchers their way through the same endless night of the hunt, they meet some comrades who present a strange child. Before they brush this off as “not what they seek,” the child is shown to have white blood, staggering our protagonist. Through these encounters, I’ve guessed this comic is probably a prequel to the game. That first familiar encounter is with Djura, a hostile hunter that refuses to kill the now beastly residence of Old Yharnam. He’s the one who introduces the main character to the paleblood child, but unlike in the game, he is easily friendly to this hunter and he isn’t alone. He leads The Powder Keg Hunters, a faction only hinted at in game by items attributed to them such as The Powder Keg Hunter Badge or certain “crude” weapons. It’s even hinted that their numbers are thinning and Djura is alone in not wanting to harm these former innocent villagers turned monsters.
And naturally, the hunter has to meet with Gherman, the first hunter, and The Doll. While there are very infrequent lines of dialogue denoting Gherman’s true nature, trapped in the Hunter’s Dream at the hands of an unwieldy horror, in the comic there’s several interesting lines of hushed whispers that allow our hunter to slowly realize even their master is trapped with no hope of liberation. It’s just this little injection of fear and paranoia that could go completely unheard in a play-through of the game that lends itself so well to the hidden horrors of that universe. Otherwise, I’d call the doll’s brief presence and other little details fan service, though it doesn’t get in the way of things to me.What I love is the inclusion of what’s considered one of the most difficult bosses: The Blood-Starved Beast. The context from that boss battle is a little lost in the comic, but what better monster to use in this story of frantic desperation than an agile, emaciated monster in hot pursuit? What confuses me is the way the child interacts with the beast, he almost asserts control over it at points in the story with almost no explanation. However, I find myself captivated just trying to figure out where he might have come from! And that’s the beauty of not telling the audience every detail, it just makes you more and more curious… Could he have been a child of Kos, could it he have been born in a place like the the Moonside Lake in Bygenwerth where you fight Rom? So many possibilities…
The story itself blends well with our burnt out protagonist. It’s brief, fragmented, and uncertain, feeling as though the longer it goes on, the more it comes undone… deliberately. This can be a good or bad thing, to be honest. I like to think this is a story of a hunter before the game that just couldn’t bear the horrors any longer and everything they held onto in search of escape simply unravels before they decide how to break the rut they find themselves in. I’d recommend to fans of Bloodborne, certainly, and tentatively to those who have an interest in stories designed so as not to answer most questions, the ones that feel like the moment you pull a thread, the rest begins coming undone, yet in falling apart you glimpse a wider picture… a very specific flavor indeed! I’d call it an acquired taste. It’s worth a look if you want to see an unusual way to conduct a brief story, with or without experience or exposure to the game. It stands alone as a short, eerie tale.
The second and third installments of the Bloodborne trade series are available online and in-store, the final book, Bloodbone: The Veil, Torn Asunder will be released on February 4, 2020 and is now available for pre-order.