There aren’t currently a huge amount of horror comics on the shelves, and far less about sea monsters (modern audiences seem to have trouble taking anything that comes from the depths of the ocean seriously – just ask Aquaman). Factor in a science fiction framework that remoulds human history while envisioning a future in which Earth’s topography and cultures have been drastically altered by mass flooding, and The Wake is unique. Writer Scott Snyder not only has the ability to manage such an ambitious project, but also to get it published, with DC clearly keen to keep their superstar Batman writer happy by releasing his weird fishpeople story on their Vertigo imprint.
The narrative is told in two parts, each five issues long. The first concerns Lee Archer, a cetologist who reluctantly accepts a job with the Department of Homeland Security as part of a team of experts studying a creature that appears to be half-prehistoric man, half-fish in a secret underwater rig. Their initial briefing session is interrupted when one of the rig’s attendants is violently attacked by the merman, and from here the situation gets progressively more desperate as they are hunted by the creature and the rig becomes a prison in which, fathoms underwater, no one can hear you scream. The second part is set 200 years later and follows Leeward, a fearless free-spirit who is hounded by the military in a cross-globe adventure replete with technologically adept pirates and robotic parrots, in pursuit of a radio transmission that legend has it provides the key to saving the world from a watery doom.
In many respects the two parts act as distinct halves, with the emphasis on horror, confined spaces and hopelessness in the first contrasted by swashbuckling sci-fi, vast open landscapes and a quest for humanity’s salvation in the second. However, these halves don’t function simply as dichotomies, as they bleed into each other. This is most explicit in enigmatic glimpses of the past and future scattered throughout the first five issues, which create puzzles by, for instance, showing prehistoric humans with highly advanced technologies. Through this the events aboard the rig are situated at the centre of a storm that begun at the dawn of humanity and threatens to ravage its future.
Exchange between the two parts also occurs in parallels between Lee and Leeward, which go way beyond the embarrassingly obvious similarity in names. Both women possess an unquenchable thirst for knowledge and flair for rebellion against the authorities that attempt to constrict them. Artist Sean Murphy’s scratchy-but-defined style avoids the big tits, minuscule waist and tits-for-arse cheeks presentations of women that are sadly still common in comic books, and grants the two leads comparable but distinct physiques. Lee’s scruffier appearance shows her unease with regulation and formality while Leeward is more toned and muscular, reflecting the physical demands of her survival method in a future void of many modern comforts.
Murphy’s artwork also captures the comic’s duality of scale, with the tight, claustrophobic compositions in part one at key moments juxtaposed against, or providing windows onto, exteriors of the rig – the looming, angular structure that threatens to be Lee’s tomb. Meanwhile, part two often presents images of open landscapes that stretch across the length of two pages, with overlaying panels drawing us to details and characters within the space.
The story’s two sides are further defined, and simultaneously interwoven, by Matt Hollingsworth’s colours. Like his work on Hawkeye, one colour often dominates a page, with different shades distinguishing objects and characters while drenching them all in the same mood. Part one is awash with maroons, deep blues and muddy greens, these drab hues closing down the spaces in which the characters are trapped while the sense of isolation and danger is accentuated by the colours melding into blackness that often stretches to the edge of pages. The prevalent colours in part two are pastel yellows and blues, opening and illuminating the wide vistas to highlight the freedom obtainable through exploration. Consistency is offered across these palettes by the washed out nature of all the colours, removing the narrative from the bright worlds with which comic books are often associated and grounding it instead in one that is tonally more naturalistic.
The narrative is also rooted in reality through its obsession with folklore. While at times it can seem like part one is information dumping to show off the extent of Snyder’s research, it acts as a framework on which to construct part two’s grand ideas. Characters discuss not just specific folklores, but the nature of folklore itself, demonstrating that these stories are so pervasive due to originating in real life referents (for example, we are told that legends of yetis stem from Asiatic bears walking on their hind legs). The Wake functions similarly, making itself so compelling by rationalising the bold places its narrative goes through entwining it with familiar phenomena, from science and folklore to genre conventions that prey on primal fears.
Ostensibly a story of two parts, through entangling these The Wake builds a whole mythology that is both rich in detail and broad in scope. Although the rigorous connecting of narrative dots in the final issue doesn’t leave much for the reader to intuit themselves, it allows you to step back and admire the world that’s been meticulously crafted. In pondering this you realise that, among all of The Wake’s achievements, one that can easily go unnoticed it that it makes mermen genuinely frightening and fascinating creatures. Maybe DC should ask Snyder to write Aquaman.