Written and illustrated by Liz Valasco
Published by Tinto Press
What if the small town ghost stories you heard were true? Liz Valasco supposes it’s so. Maybe a crush will get you in trouble, maybe the stuff mom keeps in storage is under a curse, maybe that list of instructions isn’t a joke but a spell. Definitely it’s dangerous. The Seeker is a perfect pocket novel Halloween story. Enchanting, sweet, until it isn’t.
Everything’s ruined just because one kid chose to trust the wrong ghost. Another woodsy Midwest Northeast looking suburb, small enough where everyone knows everyone else, quiet enough that you could run screaming into the ravine and no one would hear you. You know the scene: flannel kids drinking beers and ghost hunting for lack of things to do.
Grandpa’s mysterious old ring turned up today.
Valasco’s spare, sketchy style calls back to school days and doodle paper. It fits. But: just pencils! If the art is childish, it is a guise, comely art that is well worked. The monster in a plastic pumpkin bucket. Pretty like autumn in the suburbs. Eerie like when a family portrait that used to be facing the other way starts looking for you. Nothing in The Seeker you wouldn’t find in a basement, a graveyard, a masonic lodge, a video store. But Valasco casts a spell over it all, assembling these components and then rearranging them into the impossible.
Tinto Press released a print version in monochrome, handsomely bound. A light hand draws depth of field with fainter greys, a lighter touch still filling up the background space. Night falls, a curtain behind our kids, with more and more pressure on pencil point. Valasco draws nice, clear figures, a realistic world from the contents of the garage to the lonely stretches in the woods. Enough detail is in each face to set them distinctly apart and to afford them subtle, meaningful resemblances. The string of a cape, tied around the neck in a bow. To regard a ring, and the face that materializes within the band. Valasco finds a seamless way to join concrete and atmospheric details, in her art and the story.
And I love the hand lettering. Measured and clear, but room for mistakes- flavor- from an aversion to rigidity. Unshackled but aiming for the same groove as the best in the field. Nittles, jarns, grawlixes, and other communication scribbles pepper the speech the way little lines popping out of an elbow tap flavor the read. The drift in style from one voice to another up the spooky scale is much more natural. Keeps it zine-y, but the technique is top shelf.
The handmade charm tips back further than contemporary indie rock comparisons, twee and spooky as it is, to a retro schoolbook vibe. Valasco reminds me of the kind of 1960s in-house illustrators who breathed life into Ramona the Pest. Simple and cute with thoughtful little details. Mostly old and a little new, round and simple like Nancy and Nimona. Drawn and Quarterly would be a good fit for a story of such professional quality that eschews the rules that run the mainstream. There’s a list of compelling horror publishers as long as your arm, but Tinto and Valasco offer a pocket collection’s timing and a story arc free from the confines of serialized storytelling.
The Seeker is walking fast to keep pace with the older kids. It’s exciting to be out of your depth, to fake it and see how far you can go with it. Testing boundaries is a part of growing up. The undertow in their town, however, pulls hard enough to drag what should stay buried up to the surface, maybe currents harder than teenagers can stand against. But the fast walk and faster waves is also the reader and the book. Valasco opens to the story, not its beginning, and catches you up quick.
For throwing you in at the deep end and focusing more on how the characters feel than who they are (who they are comes through more in what they do than recalling their history; who inspires how), The Seeker builds a swift chain of history, rich beyond the story being told, ripe with potential for future adventure. This doesn’t beat the Twin Peaks drum as hard as some of the other phenomenal spooky teen retro comics that have come out in the last year or two. This one’s The Spirit of the Beehive.
Valasco makes great use of genre. From Over the Garden Wall to Nightmare on Elm Street, we’ve been here before. The Seeker uses this familiarity to work for the reader. Not wallowing in nostalgia, using classic forms to shortcut past unnecessary backstory. You can run with the story because you know it. What you don’t know is Valasco is telling her version, and it plays to different beats and stakes than solicited storytelling.
It’s fresh. It’s a rare treat that The Seeker delivers, to have something twist your perspective/blow your mind quite a few times, and quickly. Every choice made by Liz Valasco in the creation of this book speaks to a quiet, deeper understanding of writing comics. There could certainly be more stories tied to the kids in The Seeker, or you could leave it in its inscrutable now. The important question. What’s next for Valasco?