Pullbox Reviews Sour Candy, horror not for the squeamish or orally fixated…

Four months to the day he first encountered the boy at Walmart, the last of Phil Pendleton’s teeth fell out.

At first glance, Phil and his son Adam are just an ordinary father and son, no different from any other. Some might say the father is a little too accommodating given the lack of discipline when the child loses his temper in public. Some might say he spoils his son by allowing him to set his own bedtimes and eat candy whenever he wants. Some might say that such leniency is starting to take its toll on the father, given how his health has declined.

What no one knows is that Phil is a prisoner, and that up until a few weeks ago and a chance encounter at a grocery store, he had never seen the child before. But now Adam is in his life, altering and controlling it, and it will take a particular kind of horror to get him out. Because there is nothing ordinary about Adam, or the monsters that come when he calls.

That first line… just a sentence carried out over the first page… might be the most disturbing opening to a comic book that I’ve ever read. The words alone might be kind of innocuous, but when you pair them with the artwork… ugh. It probably doesn’t help that I’ve kinda got a thing with dental horror. The scene in Marathon Man, where Dustin Hoffman is questioned while his torturer pokes & prods in his mouth with dental instruments, really any scenes in movies or television involving drilling or extracting, and I’m out of the room.

What really sells the building levels of discomfort and dread in Sour Candy is the work of illustrator Jason Felix. He uses a photo-realistic style that lends the story a solid base. All of the characters look like actual people, not comic book caricatures. In the case of main character Phil Pendleton, that level of believability highlights the steady decline he takes over the course of the book. In the end, Phil has little to nothing in common with the fellow we’re introduced to in the beginning. At first, he’s handsome, confident, and by all indications very much in love with his girlfriend Lori. Then he meets Adam, a fresh faced little cherub of a boy any parent would be proud to call their own. Until he doesn’t get his way, then it’s all banshee shrieks and “I don’t know you, kid! Why are you in my house?” All of the visual elements work to drive home the building sense that Phil’s life just isn’t his anymore, and it’s Felix who makes the reader really feel that tailspin through his creepily life-like approach to the story.

Not to downplay anything brought to the page by writer Kealan Patrick Burke. His script shines the spotlight on one of the worst cases of gaslighting in comics history. What starts out with a chance encounter takes Phil through the worst do-over imaginable. Lori, who he’d just rolled out of bed and shared some adorable banter with that morning, has left him. He’s suddenly got a son and no matter how many times or how loudly he insists that he doesn’t have a kid, no one around him will believe it. Burke builds up to Phil’s emotional breaking point slowly, letting tension build as the reader goes deeper into his narrative. Just like Phil, we’re left wondering just who the hell is this kid?

Janice Chiang is given the unenviable job of bringing Burke’s script to the page. I’m not a letterer, but I have no doubt that it’s not as simple as just typing stuff out and high-fiving yourself for a job well done. A letterer has to use the space provided to place the dialogue on the page, hopefully working with an artist who leaves them room to do so without blocking or interrupting the flow of the story. In Sour Candy, Chiang’s work is compounded by the complexity of Jason Felix’s life-like artwork. If I’m really honest, the stark white word bubbles looked a little odd on the page, and I’m not really sure what might have been done differently to make that better. As it is, Chiang maintained the spirit of the work without breaking up that creeping feeling of dread introduced on the first page.

For readers who dread their trips to the dentist, who have an issue with orally fixated examples of “body horror”, or who generally find the idea of their teeth rotting and falling out of their mouths horrifying, this probably isn’t the book for you. Better to find a more ADA friendly comic to spend some time with, and leave Sour Candy to the more hardcore readers out there. Seriously, there’s no shame if you don’t think you can handle it. But if you’re made of sterner stuff than that, you might find this one in your wheelhouse… particularly if you’re a fan of the kind of horror regularly being put out by Sandy King, John Carpenter, and all of the folks at Storm King Comics.

Final Score: 11/13

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