James Tynion continues to surprise in 'Something Is Killing the Children'
There aren't too many writers as original as James Tynion IV in the world of comics – and for that, you can blame the world of comics itself. Tynion isn't the kind of "arty" storyteller whose naturalistic, meandering (or, alternately, bizarre and flummoxing) narratives might be published by Drawn & Quarterly or Fantagraphics. He also seems determined to earn a living at his trade, whereas most people who make art comics feel lucky if their sales earn them an extra weekly latte.
But Tynion has never seemed very comfortable as a mainstream comics writer, either. Though he's spent years thinking up new twists for the interminable adventures of DC and Marvel's assorted superbeings, he's also had some exhilaratingly unpredictable titles published by indie houses like Boom! Studios. In 2015, Memetic combined apocalyptic zombie action with a sober look at the appeal of Internet memes (and also a sloth). The Woods, published from 2014-2018, managed to tell a story about high-school kids while keeping the ending miraculously unguessable. In 2020, Tynion launched his series The Department of Truth with Image Comics, which is known for its creator-ownership publishing model.
Then there's Something Is Killing the Children. Unlike Memetic and The Woods, this series puts its genre right up front: The reader is in for straight-up horror, with plenty of scares and blood. That may be part of why Something has become a huge hit since its 2019 launch. Boom! is releasing the first 15 episodes in this deluxe hardcover and calls this arc "the Archer's Peak saga" because it takes place in the small fictional town of Archer's Peak, Wisc. Raised in Milwaukee, Tynion often mines his Midwestern background for nuances, so it's tempting to speculate that his roots in Flyover Country contribute to the freshness of his vision. If not, at least the setting allows him to have one character declare at a key point, "Get the cars ready. We're going to Wisconsin."
Despite a few smirky lines like that, most of Something Is Killing the Children is deadly serious. It should be, since, you know, something is killing children. A whole heck of a lot of children, and grownups, die bloodily before Tynion's through. The culprits are merciless in their actions and messy in their methods, just as you'd expect from a book that aims to snare horror-comic fans. Tynion's designated monster-fighter is cool, too: Named Erica Slaughter, she's an unfazeable warrior-chick whose sneer is as tight and fixed as her platinum-blonde ponytail.
Though Erica eventually identifies and kills the book's baddies – with help from a high schooler named Jim, an embryonic writer who looks a lot like Tynion – this resolution opens up more questions than it resolves. That's because, in what's becoming classic Tynion fashion, the plot is intertwined with a number of knotty themes. Readers who have little interest in the blood-and-guts parts of Tynion's tale will still find themselves caught by the provocative questions he raises. These include whether it's possible to tell a story untainted by cliché and whether writers are to blame for the damage their ideas may cause.
Since he writes comics but doesn't draw them, Tynion has had to entrust his visions to numerous different artists over the years. Werther Dell'Edera is unquestionably the most successful to date. Unlike Tynion's other artists, Dell'Edera realizes he needs to do more than just compose exciting-looking action scenes: He needs to straddle the mainstream/indie divide. He does that through a variety of choices. Most strikingly, he alludes repeatedly to the great Daniel Clowes (creator of Eightball and Ghost World) through style, composition and character design. That's something no mainstream comic artist would ever do. Although the main characters don't look like anyone out of Clowes' books, the crowd scenes and some side characters look like Clowes' people.
In his edgiest drawings, Dell'Edera allows characters' features to collapse into near-abstraction – another daring move in a book aimed at mainstream horror readers. Like Dell'Edera, colorist Miquel Muerto understands what makes alternative comics great. Though Muerto uses a range of textural effects to jack up the intensity of action sequences, he and Dell'Edera aren't afraid to fill spreads with flat beige and brown when it will express the feel of a scene.
Something Is Killing the Children is eloquent proof that Tynion will never be comfortable squeezing himself into the boxes that define today's comics industry. He made that explicit in August when he turned down a three-year contract to write Batman for DC. Instead, he chose to launch an independent newsletter through the much-talked-about Substack platform. His decision gives an extra layer of nuance to Something Is Killing the Children – especially the parts where characters mock the platitudes of superhero stories. Tynion may not get much sleep in his new life as a truly independent creator, but he'll almost certainly continue to surprise.
Etelka Lehoczky has written about books for The Atlantic, The Los Angeles Review of Books and The New York Times. She tweets at @EtelkaL.
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