Best Shots Review: BY NIGHT #3 has 'Whimsy & Wonder in Equal Measure' (9/10)

BOOM! Studios August 2018 cover
Credit: BOOM! Studios
Credit: BOOM! Studios

By Night #3
Written by John Allison
Art by Christine Larsen and Sarah Stern
Lettered by Jim Campbell
Published by BOOM! Studios
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

John Allison is one of those writers whose sense of structure feels effortless - while his weekly webcomic Bad Machinery gave his readership a steady drip-feed of content to keep them engaged, his monthly series Giant Days has invested enough into developing characters that it feels like it could run forever, like a beloved sitcom. But what sets By Night, Allison’s latest work at BOOM!, apart is how this is a 12-issue maxiseries, a finite series that’s more overtly serialized and makes use of storytelling techniques predicated on a sense of mystery. Despite this difference in format and genre, Allison’s distinct voice shines through in the book’s emphasis on well-crafted characters, ensuring each issue feels like a worthy installment in and of itself.

One of By Night’s most interesting concepts is the idea that everyone has a story. Take Tabitha, a waitress at Marty’s diner, who was once Homecoming Queen. Some of the younger citizens of Spectrum, South Dakota have never gotten to know this much previously, and just assumed she was a ghost lady. This brief personal history takes up less than a page of this third issue, yet builds on how the first issue uses her for a cutaway gag. The lesson of this? Pay attention to someone or something for long enough, and you’re bound to stumble onto something more interesting than you expected.

This is apt considering there’s something peculiar going on in Spectrum, something you wouldn’t be aware of on first glance. There’s a portal to another dimension that can be found in the recently closed Charleswood Estate. It’s found in a movie theater, hidden at the back of a supply closet, just past the bleach. The owner of the estate, Chet Charles, vanished years ago, and his money’s finally run out, hence the shutdown. Previously, the series’ protagonists Heather and Jane discovered this portal, went for a wander on the other side, and decided that they’d go back again to record their findings, asking their acquaintance Barney to keep watch while they were gone. With Heather and Jane still missing, this issue features Barney enlisting the help of Heather’s dad Chip to figure out how to help them return — after a hearty breakfast, that is.

Barney and Chip have been involved in the story previously, but they’ve been perceived from a perspective aligned with Heather and Jane. Allison’s change in perspective allows a deeper insight into the characters and an opportunity to reconsider how to see certain relationships — most of all Heather and Chip’s — now that we’ve been privy to Chip’s side of things. The issue keeps up the tension by creating a smaller, more urgent mystery while still driving the larger story forward, gradually revealing more pieces of the puzzle without treating the narrative as something that exists just to be solved.

There’s whimsy and wonder in equal measure to be found along the way, as the book examines how much the town has changed and how much it’s stayed the same in the time since Chip was Heather’s age. It seems like no coincidence that Chet Charles vanished 25 years ago; it’s a generational thing. As much as the book so far has been about discovering an alien world on the other side of the portal, should this story later involve Chet returning to Earth after all those years away, it would still ring true.

While Charleswood Estate might feel barren as Chip and Barney walk the grounds, the artwork of By Night doesn’t, thanks to Christine Larsen and Sarah Stern’s soft and vibrant cartooning. Their style is straightforward, with an aesthetic that would fit the vibe of most webcomics, where the storytelling essentials are abundant and on display across every page. The overall detail is less that you’ll find in Giant Days –– to keep the discussion Allison-adjacent –– but every once in a while, they add a flourish that fits effortlessly, like how they take the gutter between two panels and turn it into the frame of an open door. Barney and Chip’s designs –– along with everyone else featured in the story –– are wonderfully expressive and realized. Their clothing choices inform their personality and a slight tilt of the head is enough for a mood change or reaction to register. There are some artists which can never get faces right, but the pair manage this with ease and with an approach that can be wrongly characterized as simplistic at first glance.

Reading through By Night #3, it can be surprising how much the art team makes use of heavy shadow throughout, despite much of the issue taking place in the day. Not in terms of relating this to the story –– it is in the broadest sense about uncovering the unseen in the otherwise unassuming –– but in terms of how the color scheme gives off a small-town vibe. Nothing in Spectrum is aggressively neon, just cosy and comfortable. The surface normalcy is all the more apparent, with the series having provided a glimpse of someplace otherworldly in the previous issue. It is to Larsen and Stern’s credit that they can juggle both aspects of the story in as nimble a fashion as Allison does while scripting.

Credit: BOOM! Studios

When reading a comic written by Allison, the real fun comes from spending time with the characters and getting to know them. From a plot perspective, By Night #3 is a full issue packed with instance. Rather than just having Barney and Chip talk as they wait around for Heather and Jane, their rescue mission has its own internal drive pushing it along. Allison’s comical stylings remain intact despite having jumped across the pond from more UK-centric stories to this South-Dakotan set mystery, with a variety of jokes on display from one set-up and payoff on the same page to others which are seeded issues before, boosted by the dialogue’s generally humorous tone. Allison’s no doubt aided by Giant Days letterer Jim Campbell, whose work ensures a steady rhythm and supports the premise of the book with balloons which occasionally overlap with each other or the panel borders.

Allison’s scripts are densely layered; laced with jokes, character insights and subtle plot machinations without ever seeming heady or overwrought. In Larsen, Stern and Campbell, he’s found yet another creative team which only enhance these qualities when collaboratively translating the story into a visual medium. What’s most impressive is how they’re accomplishing this on a month-to-month basis, something all the more important when thinking about how many books seem to fall prey to decompression and padding for the trade. Juggling plots, characters and stories for serialized comics isn’t always easy, but By Night’s creative team sure does make it look that way.

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