The Straw Men #1
Writer: Joe Brusha
Artist: Brett Weldele
If you have never read Michael Marshall’s novel, The Straw Men, your life is surely poorer for it. One of the best horror thrillers ever written, it is comprised of two seemingly separate stories: one (told in third person) about a serial killer of children, The Upright Man, and the two people pursuing him; the other (told in first person) a man’s quest to discover a secret life that his recently deceased parents kept hidden from him. The plots are complex and are expertly woven by Mr. Marshall’s terrific prose to intersect at a point of commonality: the Straw Men. It is a novel capable of blending creepy with outright terror with white-knuckle-can’t-put-it-downedness that does not lose an iota of effect even upon re-reading. Side-by-side against some of Stephen King, I would argue that it would give Uncle Stevie a run for his money (well, except for The Stand). It can be appreciated, then, how adapting such a piece of work into the comic form is an admirable idea, and if anyone can do it, Zenescope surely is a top contender. The question is, how well did they pull it off?
The answer is: not too shabby.
The book starts off during a lunchtime crush in the Palmerston, Pennsylvania branch of McDonald’s. It’s all Happy Meals and hamburgers until a pair of men walk in, and without ever saying a word, pull out guns and unleash a firestorm into the eighty-nine patrons. When the last report has died off, the younger of the killers dutifully turns to his partner, closes his eyes, and the latter shoots him point-blank in the face. A few moments later the man simply turns and runs away, never to be apprehended.
Ten years later (a passage of time not mentioned in the comic that I hope is corrected in the final copy as it prevents an awkward segue from the prelude to the first chapter) Ward Hopkins stands graveside at a matching pair of coffins: his parents have recently been killed in a car accident. Ward is soon met by the family attorney who drops a revelatory bomb: Ward’s father, instead of leaving the family business to his son, had decided instead to have the operation shut down and boxed up. Ward, crushed by the gravity of losing his parents as well as this final middle-finger flick from his father, eventually finds himself sitting in Dad’s easy chair, contemplating the wheres and whys of their strained relationship. The chair, however, has a secret of its own. Ward unearths from its bowels its bowels a novel with a piece of paper inside. “Ward,” it says. “We’re not dead.”
Cut to the Santa Monica Promenade where fourteen-going-on-twenty-four-year-old Sarah Becker is on her familiar stroll with BFF, Sian. Sarah is clearly an adolescent of privilege, a teen whose future is bright with the prospect of being the central nucleus about which a clique of gossip girls is sure to rotate. Unfortunately for Sarah, evil keeps a watchful on her from the shadows, coiling to strike…
They are all intertwined, the violence, the secrets, the Upright Man and when they all eventually converge, what is brought to light are the horrifying truths about the Straw Men. Horrifying because when the final page is turned you have to wonder if it could really occur in the world around us.
Zenescope’s President, Joe Brusha, has clearly made a faithful and careful attempt at adapting the novel, excising with surgical precision key points of dialogue. It is unfortunate that conversation is about all he can extract, forced to leave on the cutting-room floor the bulk of the novel, which is Michael Marshall’s expertly smithed descriptive prose. This is a comic, after all, and the pictures have to do the heavy lifting. One line of prose that I wish had made final copy is one of the best ever written in the whole history of literature, and takes place during the McDonald’s massacre: “In a room full of victims, murderers look like gods.”
Mr. Brusha has also taken two decided liberties that I wish he had not (but then again, I’m a purist). One is a flashback between Ward and his father, when the younger takes pops to Lazy Ed’s, the local watering hole that is underage-friendly. Ward witnesses an exchange between Dad and Ed, where the former claims he was “giving him a lecture on the subject of underage drinking”. If you’ve not read the novel, this is no great shakes. Unfortunately, this does not happen in the novel and it serves to circumvent the mystery of the Straw Men as revealed later on. How detrimental it is to the plot remains to be seen in later issues of this series.
The other departure occurs in Santa Monica. Again, this scene does not occur as such in the novel and in the comic it overly simplifies the villain, painting him as a stereotypical pedophilic lurker when he is actually much more complex, calculating, and manipulative. I hope that as the series progresses Mr. Brusha keeps a closer reign to the novel and that the qualities that make this character so terrifying and terrible are adequately fleshed out.
I’m normally not a fan of Brett Weldele’s style of artwork, which is sparse and scratchy and at times hard to follow. I would have preferred a more noir-ish style for this series, Sean Phillips perhaps, or even the vastly under-appreciated (and under-utilized) Paul Azaceta. I have to admit, however, that it does work, and he does a fine job of telling a story. There is a lot of story to juggle from here on out, and we have not even been introduced to FBI agent Nina Baynum, former detective John Zandt, and Ward’s friend/comic relief/spook Bobby Nygard. The switching between points of view is going to be interesting, and portends for a comic book yielding a complexity to match the novel.
Zenescope is a terrific company that I don’t believe gets enough regard for their work. While they are best known for their cheesecakey and highly enjoyable re-imaginings of fairy tales, The Straw Men is their best shot of gaining notoriety and visibility in the same section of the store where the hard-case crime books reside. The series is off to a solid start and I cannot wait to see how it all unfolds. This is a thinking-man’s horror comic, a thrill-ride for readers who simply demand more from their comics. If I could, I would add it to everyone’s pull list.