What visit to the ComixTribe booth from this year’s New York Comic Con would be complete without getting the rest of their primary horror story? It has been quite a journey for “And Then Emily Was Gone”, which acts as the second complete series which writer John Lees has produced with the publisher. While it does share some details with his first ComixTribe comic, “The Standard”, such as the angle of having a retired crime-fighter make a comeback to find a missing child taken by a maniac, it couldn’t be more different if it tried. Paired with masterful artist Iain Laurie and colorist Megan Bell, Lees’ second act proves to be as good as his first. “And Then Emily Was Gone” is a horror comic unlike any other with familiar beats which take darker turns as well as some of the most disturbing images one may find in horror comics today. Most horror comics have followed the path of cinema in that what is considered “scary” is essentially scenes of graphic violence and/or torture. While there is a bit of that in this story, it is also a tale which embraces the full meaning of “fear” beyond simplistic violence and towards making real the sorts of terrors that only exist in the minds of the young and old alike.
Technically, the fifth and final issue of “And Then Emily Was Gone” shipped last December (in time for Christmas). However, a handsome trade collection went on sale in February, and a special zero issue offering a prologue story by the same creative team served as ComixTribe’s feature for this year’s Free Comic Book Day. As such, this is the year that the spooky story seems to have released its hold on the souls of readers – at least for the moment.
The first half of the series introduced the key players and basic set up. Our tale mostly takes place on the small Scottish island of Merksay, part of the Orkney archipelago. Accessible only via a run down ferry, it is a place where the lines between myth and mortality blur, and it gets hard to tell the people from the phantoms. Children disappear at an alarming rate on the island, including the titular Emily, yet their parents and authorities seem to quietly accept this as unavoidable. Desperate to save her friend and get to the bottom of the mystery, the young Fiona runs away to the city to recruit the only man she thinks can help – ex detective Greg Hellinger. Once a brilliant lawman, he began seeing monsters after a particular case and has been dismissed by society and himself as a lunatic ever since. However, there may be no better man to track down a boogeyman who may be quite real – the horrific Bonnie Shaw. Meanwhile, Emily’s father Gordon slowly devolves into madness as he pokes around his own head as well as where the meat in Merksay comes from, as the weird hit man Vin is brought increasingly closer to our heroes. Greg and Fiona go undercover on Merksey to make their investigation, meeting what appears to be a gallery of increasingly strange and bizarre citizens (such as “Mental Jimmy” the ferryman and the sideshow freak “Big Carey”). As Greg’s grip on reality seems to stretch to its limit, Fiona’s desire to get to the bottom of things brings her closer to a monster’s clutches than she ever intended. Somehow, Greg must find a handle on the nightmares around him if he has a prayer of saving Fiona from the dreaded “Circus of the Night”.
To a degree reviewing this series is difficult only because it is a comic which needs to be read and experienced to fully appreciate. As great as the writing is, Iain Laurie’s artwork sets the mood perfectly for every scene, with what seems like a desire to test the courage of his readers with some of the images depicted in every issue. The difficulty with telling the people apart from the monsters is completely intentional, as it allows Merksay to become a world unto itself where normal rules don’t apply. Something (or someone) creepy is behind everyone corner of practically every page. Laurie is the polar opposite of most comic book artists – rather than draw everyone as immaculate models or athletes (or hum drum average people), he seems to make every character distinct by deliberately avoiding making them look too attractive. Even the kids have overbites or odd eyes or so forth, and Greg himself has quite a Roman nose. Much like real people, everyone has a flaw and it helps immerse one within the world of the comic even better. A general sense of uneasiness seems to flow with every panel, even the ones which merely lead up to something violent or scary. Laurie’s sense of design for both the people and especially the monsters is absolutely unique, with him saving his peaks of “disturbing imagination” for opportune moments. Lee’s script naturally produces a great supernatural mystery as well as casters to Laurie’s talents with quite a cast to render. Gordon’s visit to the “McBain Abattoir” is but one example, as is the zero issue which showcases the abduction of another Merksay child, Billy.
Emily may be in the title and Greg and Fiona may be the leads, but the real star of the series may be Bonnie Shaw himself. Lees is no stranger to villains, creating or writing quite a few in “The Standard” or the recent “Oxymoron: the Loveliest Nightmare”. Yet Bonnie Shaw is something quite different, neither a brutal slasher or a costumed anti-hero. Inspired by a nightmare he had as a boy, it seems both Lees and Laurie have sought to do creatively what some of their cast do within the story – make a monster of the collective imagination real. Bonnie Shaw may not physically show up in every issue, but he is consistently built up by the other characters consistently with an aura which flows through the entire tale. Mention of his very name brings a hush to even a crowded bar or a troupe of carnival freaks. His strength is his simplicity; his ability to appear out of nowhere, radiate your inner most fears and whisk you away forever. Even his design plays into this; on the surface he’s a hairy troll with a large belt buckle and a lot of teeth, but Laurie has so much fluidity with this design for whatever horrific thing Bonnie needs to do that one hardly notices. Other artists such as Joe Mulvey, Alex Cormack, and even Ryan Stegman try their hands at drawing him and all do a fine job, but nobody makes him scarier than his co-creator, Iain Laurie. Shaw looks like something which any child could imagine or even redraw but whose full form and horror is only experienced by his victims at the time of attack. The fifth and zero issues are Bonnie Shaw showcases and are easily among the best in the series for it. Despite his appearance, Bonnie Shaw doesn’t overwhelm victims with brute force or graphic violence, but with shifting forms, illusions, cruel bargains and the warping of minds. He may look like a mindless monster but he can overwhelm with his sheer presence; much like the worst nightmares of all. In just a few issues, Bonnie Shaw could give Freddy Krueger a run for his money.
Which isn’t to say the other characters are to be dismissed. Greg’s struggle with sanity and making heads or tails with what is real and what isn’t may be a perfect metaphor for how some readers may look at the pages themselves. Fiona’s a fascinating little girl whose initial zeal to rescue her friend eventually reveals something darker. Gordon’s journey reveals some of the series’ most disturbing scenes without Bonnie Shaw. Vin is as close as the series gets to a comic relief, as a low level hit man with a sharp sense of humor and a few kinks to boot, and the story wouldn’t be the same without him. In the end, practically every character in Merksay is memorable regardless of how many pages they may have to showcase themselves.
Any art, scary or otherwise, is subjective. There is some nudity in this, although it’s hardly there to be exploitative or titillate. Most comics have “splash pages”; this one has “scare pages”, and not everyone may be able to handle some of them. The combined imaginations of Lee and Laurie may be bridges too far for some readers. Yet that is exactly the point. Without relying on cheap gimmicks or overplayed memes, “And Then Emily Was Gone” embodies creative horror in comics in its fullest and most genuine form. A spooky story which is “safe for everyone” often is not scary enough for anyone. If there is anything that “And Then Emily Was Gone” isn’t, it is safe.
With Halloween barely more than a week away, now is the best time to get into the spirit of the holiday and visit the island of Merksay via ComiXology or the main ComixTribe shop. Much like a meeting with Bonnie Shaw, this comic is an experience which won’t ever be forgotten.