[This graphic novel is a C4 Great Read.]

Written and illustrated by David Lapham

Vertigo, 2007

Filed under: Graphic Novels

David Lapham’s 2007 graphic novel Silverfish reads like an illustrated screenplay for a never-filmed John Carpenter-style suburban thriller. And while writer/illustrator Lapham is clearly familiar with (and fond of) the conventions of such films (Chief of Police father, bratty, rich-girl best friends, overly nice strangers with terrible secrets, etc.), he isn’t merely paying tribute to a lost genre, but reviving it in a separate medium.

If cinematic horror has largely abandoned atmosphere, suspense, and character, why shouldn’t comics pick up the slack? It’s not the novelty of “cinematic comics” that makes Silverfish such an exciting read, though; any comic that uses wide panels and dramatic visuals can make the same claim. Urgent pacing, realistic (if supernaturally tinted) danger, and a bold visual style set Silverfish apart in a field flush with predictable plots and flat characters.

Set in Seaside Heights, NJ in the late 80s (only one Springsteen reference!) Silverfish concerns bored teenager Mia, who is still reeling from her father’s remarriage to a younger woman, Suzanne. When her father and stepmother leave for a weekend ski trip, Mia and her best friend Vonnie steal Suzanne’s notebook and make a few prank calls, hoping to uncover a lurid past life. A suitcase full of money and a blood-stained knife in hidden in a bedroom closet deepen the mystery, as does unhinged realtor Daniel, who responds to their call with a mixture of terror and bloodlust. Too scared to delve any further, Vonnie, Mia, and her little sister stop the calls, but soon find themselves pursued by both Suzanne and Daniel, each violently disturbed by the churning gears of their shared past.

The plot is pretty basic, but Lapham being Lapham, there’s something more sinister at work beneath the surface. Daniel is possibly possessed by demonic anglerfish with razor teeth and long, notched tails that seem to be swimming through his head and attacking his brain. For most of the book this seems like the author’s attempt to illustrate the sensation of psychosis, but by the climactic chase scene the safety of metaphor is abandoned, and Lapham forces us to wrestle with the potential threat posed by the fish. Realistic settings and characters, blended with a bit of supernatural uncertainty and a dark take on human behavior, is Lapham hallmark, and here those themes turn what would otherwise be compelling, but standard, genre work into genuinely terrifying graphic storytelling.

Lapham’s art also contributes to the sense of unease. His lines are clear and bold, almost cartoonish, and the detail isn’t exaggerated so that everything feels real and organic to its universe, particularly the beach-town and empty amusement park settings. The widescreen panels add a “film” feel to the book (and make it a rather quick read despite its length) but it’s Dom Ramos’s greytones that give the book its visual character. The shadows feel darker, almost palpable, but I think light gets the biggest boost from the black and white scheme. Headlights seem brighter and more penetrating, and the amusement park is all the more unsettling when lit up and gleaming and totally still.

I must mention Lapham’s gift for dialogue as well, if only because it’s a rare commodity in contemporary comics. Mia, Vonnie, and their friends speak like real teenagers, confident and cynical, but never falling into the hyper-aware riffing that plagues both mainstream and indie comics. And while plot details are sometimes offered in conversation, Lapham lets his characters speak without forcing them to push the story along, or underline meaning for any readers who haven’t been following along.

Silverfish only falters in its conclusion, which seems to want to put a smile on a story that’s way too dark to render any kind of real comfort. While the quick wrap-up ending may be another convention of the genre Lapham is working in, it nevertheless feels like a missed opportunity to push the psychological horror further than a mainstream-friendly books (or films) like this are likely to go. Regardless, Silverfish is a tense read, and a welcome return to a kind of story that’s long been relegated to the pop culture dustbin.

Similar reads: Stray Bullets, by David Lapham; and 100 Bullets, by Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso