Pullbox Reviews Civilians 1-3, following the herd into oblivion

It’s a bright sunny day near the Santa Monica Pier. You’re reading an excellent horror novel (the latest Sutter Cane!) and enjoying some downtime. But suddenly… you’re compelled to stand up. So is everyone else around you. And now you’re walking along with them into the ocean. Stop! You want to scream. Body, please- just stop! But your body refuses to listen. Not even when the waves crash over your head, and the water fills your lungs…

There are, supposedly, worse ways to go than drowning. Some reports say that after the panic experienced as water fills the lungs, there’s a sense of peace in the sensation of floating down into darkness… Now twist that thought just a bit. What if you were walking into the water while your mind screams against the actions you’re unable to control? You’re aware of everything around you, everything happening to you. You know that you’re killing yourself, even while you walk down beneath the waves, but you’re powerless to stop it.

So much for peacefully drifting away, huh?

In Civilians, the latest offering from Storm King, the mass migration into the waves off Santa Monica is just the start. Vy Thahn is driving along the freeway, looking for a way out of the gridlock she’s stuck in, when the homeless started to fall from the sky. Hank Robinson, himself a resident of Skid Row, wants to know why his friends and neighbors suddenly walked off a pedestrian overpass to rain down onto the morning traffic. Allie Lonergan is in town looking for answers to why her son joined a crowd as they all walked into the ocean and drowned. And a naked man with no memory of who he is or how he got there, is just trying to figure out why he’s wandering around in the middle of a full-blown riot. Four very different people looking for answers, and none of them have any idea just how close to them they are.

Duane Swierczynski does a fantastic job, slowly feeding out information and hints to what’s going on in this twisted little three issue story. Along with those hints, he also manages to slip in an Easter Egg or two, just to keep fans of John Carpenter on the hook (hint: look up Sutter Cane). What Swierczynski does not do is take the easy path of giving readers a likeable group of protagonists to follow around. With the exception of Vy, a surgeon in Vietnam working toward her certification here in the U.S., the collection of personalities central to this story are… I’m just gonna say “abrasive” and leave it at that. It’s a bold step, taking the chance that the reader will stick around long enough to relate to a group of people that’s largely unpleasant, and it works here. We still have Vy to cling to while we’re searching for the cause behind the chaos, probably helped along by a fast moving three-issue arc. It’s a ploy used in movies with an ensemble cast, leaving many personality types trapped together in the middle of a crisis, and Swierczynski keeps a steady hand on the wheel through beginning, middle, & end.

The visual appeal of Civilians would have been a tougher nut to crack. There’s no flash, no spandex-clad superheroes flying around, just normal folk trying to get through the day. That’s the key in a horror comic, keeping the visuals grounded while still interesting, and sometimes it takes a village. Or in this case, a team. Andrea Mutti, Gigi Baldassini, & Valerio Alloro have joined forces like a team of super lion robots, and created a book that doesn’t look like every other comic on the shelf. Mutti’s pencils lay the groundwork, establishing the host of normal people doing crazy things. The rioting mob isn’t full of crazed street thugs, but soccer parents and business execs. Mutti gives them all a distinct look and the impression that they haven’t just been waiting around for their panel to happen. There’s the sense that everyone came from lives being lived before their world flipped. That idea is upheld by Baldassini’s inks & Alloro’s colors, as they build on the pencil foundation to flesh everything out. Baldassini solidifies the world and the people in it, and with some of these dense backgrounds the eye for detail is pretty impressive. Likewise with Alloro’s work, never letting a color palette overpower a scene. The ink and color combined work to obscure parts of a given panel, letting environmental elements like smoke and haze obscure to great effect.

I can’t hype a comic lettered by Janice Chiang without remarking on her immaculate work. Where some letterers may try to flex their skills on the page, Chiang lets the script do its work. Where a whispered warning might be barely heard, her text is faded and fine. Where a shout of anger would echo along a deserted alleyway, she kicks in with a bold font to put emphasis where it’s needed. And as there is quite a bit of inner monologue happening in this story, Chiang keeps the text boxes from breaking up the panel layouts. Bad lettering can break a good comic, but Janice Chiang keeps the story moving along in its given direction.

Civilians walks a wobbly tightrope, feeding readers just enough to keep them hungry. The footing is never sure, and there are some wicked crosswinds to keep it interesting. By its very satisfying end, however, every blank is filled and every questioned answered. Almost… because like every good horror movie, once the reveal is made we’re left with one.

What the hell happens now?

Final Score: 11/13

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