An idyllic town hiding an unsettling and disturbing underbelly is one of my favorite horror tropes. There’s just something inherently scary about places that seem too perfect. And it’s a trope that Daniel Kraus uses to perfection in The Autumnal. Featuring a tense and emotional script from Kraus, some hauntingly abstract artwork from illustrator Chris Shehan, and gorgeous colors from Jason Wordie, The Autumnal delivers a rumination on generational trauma that’s as emotionally satisfying as it is scary. It’s a traditional creepy town story wrapped around an emotionally raw story about a mother and her daughter just trying to survive. And it’s a delightfully haunting read. (4 out of 5 wands.)
(Note: I received an ARC of this graphic novel from NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for a fair and honest review. All opinions are my own. Additionally, mild spoilers follow.)
Written by Daniel Kraus
Illustrated by Chris Shehan
Colors by Jason Wordie
Following the death of her estranged mother, Kat Somerville and her daughter Sybil flee a difficult life in Chicago for the quaint—and possibly deadly—town of Comfort Notch, New Hampshire. From NY Times best-selling author, Daniel Kraus (The Shape of Water, Trollhunters, The Living Dead), and rising star Chris Shehan, comes a haunting vision of America’s prettiest autumn.
After inheriting her estranged mother’s house, Kat Somerville and her daughter Sybil return to the seemingly idyllic town of Comfort Notch. A town where everyone seems wealthy and happy. But Kat and Sybil soon discover Comfort Noth hides an array of secrets underneath its cheerful, welcoming exterior. Children go missing at random. People occasionally turn up dead, with leaves stuffed in their bodies. And tying all of these strange occurrences together is a local legend—the legend of Clementine Biddle. Don’t enter The Autumnal expecting any concrete answers to the central mystery. Sure, by the end of the book, you’ll have a vague understanding of what’s going on. (And the general abstractness of the comic’s conclusion is one of its strong points). But that’s not really what The Autumnal is about.
While much of the story plays out like a traditional mystery, Kraus seems more interested in exploring how this mystery impacts the characters. For Kat, it ends up forcing her to directly confront her complicated feelings about her late mother and the impact these feelings have had on the way she parents Sybil. And as for the citizens of Comfort Notch, they’re forced to decide how far they’re willing to go to uphold (or dismantle) the status quo. Generational trauma is, perhaps, the biggest theme in The Autumnal. There’s Kat’s trauma, from her dysfunctional childhood to her even more dysfunctional adulthood, and there’s the trauma she’s passed on to Sybil. But Comfort Notch itself is a town built around traumatic events. And the townsfolk deal with that trauma in different ways. Some deny it, others self-medicate to forget it, and a few even try to change things for the better.
Though Kraus’s exploration of all of these long-lasting traumas is fairly nuanced and complex, there’s just not enough time in The Autumnal’s 8-issue run to fully explore these concepts as deeply as one might like. All of the pieces are there, and they do mostly come to an emotionally satisfying conclusion—especially in Kat’s case. But when so much time is spent exploring the mystery (and its red herrings), a lot of the more complex character work gets left on the wayside. The citizens of Comfort Notch never emerge as more than archetypes. And I wish more time could’ve been spent on how Kat’s trauma impacted Sybil. After all, Kraus begins the story suggesting Sybil will play a major role. But in practice, she often fades in and out of focus when the mystery plot doesn’t need her. And that’s a bit of a shame.
Still, The Autumnal works very well. The mystery, as traditional and predictable as it is, gives the story a nice frame to hang on. I’ll always have a soft spot for those so-perfect-they’re-creepy towns, and it’s always a joy to see how each new writer that tackles this trope tweaks it. Kraus layers his Comfort Notch with an almost witchy vibe at times. Between the heavy autumn and forest imagery, it’s hard not to immediately go in that direction. And, to be honest, it seems like that’s exactly where Kraus wants your mind to wander. But I greatly appreciate the more abstract direction he ends up steering the story. Some may long for more concrete answers to the central mystery. But I think that level of uncertainty makes the whole thing a bit scarier and complex. After all, there’s always something scary about the unknown.
And speaking of horror, much of The Autumnal’s horror comes from Chris Shehan’s artwork and Jason Wordie’s colors. Dead bodies with leaves flowing out of their mouths really do make for spectacular, genuinely haunting images. And a lot of Shehan’s work later in the story ends up being even creepier. By embracing the abstract nature of Kraus’s script, Shehan crafts a truly surreal landscape that’s very easy to get lost in. In terms of color, Wordie perfectly captures the feeling of autumn. Awash in reds and oranges, the whole book just oozes that mid-October atmosphere. At first, it creates this comfy, nostalgic feeling. But Shehan and Wordie’s artwork quickly subverts that nostalgia as the story progresses. Between the combination of Shehan’s artwork and Wordie’s colors, The Autumnal is a feast for the eyes. There’s something new to latch onto on every page. It’s that perfect mixture of beautiful and horrifying and you’ll be thinking of some of these images long after you finish the book.
On the whole, The Autumnal is an imperfect story. Some of the characters are a bit underdeveloped, and there’s not quite enough time to develop the central mystery and the central theme as well as you’d like. But when The Autumnal works, it works very well. It’s a quick-paced, haunting read with some of the most gorgeous artwork in a comic I’ve seen in a long time. I wish the story had been just a touch longer, with an even greater focus on how all of these traumatic events are impacting the characters. But for what it is, The Autumnal is a very creepy, very effective horror story. If you’re looking for a quick, spooky read, The Autumnal is a great choice.
4 out of 5 wands.
Note: This review was also posted on Geek Vibes Nation.