Cult Classic: Return to Whisper #1
Written by Eliot Rahal
Art by Felipe Cunha and Dee Cunniffe
Lettering by Taylor Esposito
Published by Vault Comics
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10
Cult Classic: Return to Whisper #1 is at once a very fun comic book and one filled with melancholy. While those traits seem initially mutually exclusive, what mood could more perfectly capture the 15-year transition from teenagers to not-quite-young adults? Eliot Rahal’s writing captures the highs and lows of nostalgia from a narrative perspective, and the art team of illustrator Felipe Cunha and colorist Dee Cunniffe create an aesthetic experience that leans on influences without losing the unique look that the comic has. Despite some shaky establishment, there is a lot to love in this introduction to Vault Comics’ new creator-owned shared universe, as this book has the same spirit and relatability as something like Misfit City, but for people who keep telling you that Shudder is the best streaming platform and are constantly rambling about movies typically reserved for local theaters at midnight.
When the comic book opens in the town of Whisper in 1997, the three characters you initially meet are Wyatt, Andrew, and Malcolm, although the latter two aren’t named initially. What is interesting looking back after reading the rest of the issue is just how much Wyatt is coded as a protagonist, which makes his death in one of Cunha’s best drawings ten pages later all the more radical in its subversion of expectation. Wyatt is mild-mannered and good-natured with leadership qualities, but also, and this isn’t a negative, vague enough that readers are going to use him as their surrogate. Generations of stories before this set that sort of precedent. Andrew and Malcolm come off initially as bumbling, more comical characters, albeit two that the comic clearly wants you to instantly view as linked. With Wyatt’s tragic death, it becomes obvious that this is instead an introduction to the two protagonists of the issue and the center of every event that follows in both the flashback sequences and present-day sequences.
Rahal makes the bold choice introducing the remaining six of the whopping nine named characters just two pages later in mirroring panels reminiscent of Squints recounting the story of the Beast in The Sandlot. This benefits the comic in one way but acts as a detriment in another. On one hand, it is an undoubtedly cool moment and a fun visual display. On the other, it works pretty horribly as an introduction, as most of the names are completely divorced from any sort of characterization, making it too easy to gloss over what should be considered essential information. It will likely be a page that readers dog-ear for the sake of quick checking to keep track of who is who once the personalities actually start to come out. An argument could be made that with the sheer number of characters currently present, there really isn’t a good and organic way to make introductions and keep the comic at standard length, and that this sort of roll call is probably the best avenue for this endeavor. It will be interesting to see the overall narrative develop to see if all of these characters prove essential.
While Cunha’s art is a nearly indisputable asset for the comic, the early pages of the comic suffer from failing to deliver a strong sense of space. While the treehouse where the characters aggregate seems large, the interior shots give the location so much floor space that the large cast is spread out to the point of appearing lonely. Later panels correct this with the teens sitting around and reacting to the TV in what appears to be more realistically close quarters. Once Cunha presents Wyatt’s splash-sized death scene, which also presents the first instance of the comic’s time jumping, he delivers a largely flawless artistic performance for the rest of the issue.
While the aforementioned splash is his best panel, his introduction to Andrew post-time jump and any panel he draws of the television with its constant barrage of footage from station QYET 13’s midnight movie vehicle Cult Classic all are rendered with some combination of emotion and momentum. It is in these television panels that Cunniffe’s colors are at their best, as the shift in palette is less dramatic than comics usually use when coloring screens. These panels, after all, still take place in the world of this comic. It would make sense that they are not vastly removed from it. These panels also show variety in Taylor Esposito’s lettering, which helps give the scenes a sense of distinction from the rest of the comic.
While the comic book stumbles getting to its feet initially, once it hits its third act it becomes a nearly virtuosic showcase of weaving narratives where they add to one another’s intrigue instead of detracting from it. The nine friends have used Wyatt’s father’s museum resources to uncover a lost and alleged cursed treasure in the town as dramatized in the film shown on Cult Classic throughout the comic. It’s an interesting bit of interplay between narratives and real life that will be interesting to follow throughout this comic and the future work of the Cult Classics-verse (Cultverse?). The friends decide to bury the treasure when they find it and return for it in 15 years together.
Wyatt dies in what is described as an unlikely car accident shortly before this planned reunion. While readers see a dead Wyatt with a phone in his hand on the hood of his car, his friends are told that his brake fluid was empty - something Wyatt would likely not allow to happen. It’s murky enough that, when connected to the accidental death of Malcolm, readers could make an equal case for freak occurrence, cursed accidents, or even degrees of intentionality. Of note, Malcolm’s outfit when he dies bears striking similarities to Wyatt’s outfit from the scenes where they are teenagers. Woe to the next character wearing a gray shirt and red Chuck Taylor’s.
Cult Classic: Return to Whisper #1 has a lot going for it, and with the interest that this issue will easily draw readers in for the next chapter of its story, as well as the next chapter from Vault’s Cult Classic line. There isn’t any sort of shared universe for the type of fan that the line is aimed at, and Return to Whisper is an outstanding introduction to it. Rahal has a unique story and the art team of Cunha and Cunniffe have exemplary art. Despite some growing pains in the first few pages, this comic manages to work equally as the harbinger of an entirely new line of comics and as a great book in its own right, the combination of which is no small feat.