Whispering Dark #1
Written by Christofer Emgård
Art by Tomas Aira
Lettering by Mauro Mantella
Published by Dark Horse Comics
Review by Joey Edsall
‘Rama Rating: 6 out of 10
Above all, The Whispering Dark #1 is not the comic book readers will likely expect it to be. Press material for the Dark Horse release from writer Christofer Emgård and artist Tomas Aira compares the four-issue limited series to H.P. Lovecraft’s classic At The Mountains of Madness and Francis Ford Coppola’s decade-defining Apocalypse Now. Most fans will latch onto the former, especially given the ominous and gorgeous cover art. It’s surprising, then, that barring a handful of panels, it leans much more heavily into its war story influences. Emgård’s undeniable skill at building suspense blends well with Aira’s solid artwork, and it elevates a comic book that may be otherwise overlooked into something which promises a more interesting story on the horizon.
One of the comic book’s best moves comes in its opening moments, where main character Hannah is talking to her father in a small, rural church. They are discussing the morality, or lack thereof, involved in her choosing to join the military. The scene is subtle, as we’re never totally sure where Hannah is being sent to. All we know is that it’s post-Iraq. It being mentioned in dialogue along with a reference to Vietnam gives the set up that this isn’t a popular war. The juxtaposition of a story that will ultimately conclude in otherworldly horror with religious imagery is interesting, and a move that the advertised inspirations never really run with. The opening is mirrored in the closing moments of the comic, where the same scene is revisited with more sinister, hallucinatory elements, a scene in which Aira shines.
Immediately following the opening, we are thrust into the brunt of the story. Hannah has crashed with several fellow soldiers. Her commanding officer has died, and now she is in charge. The group takes amphetamines to make sure they stay awake and alert. In a desperate bid for supplies, they ambush three unsuspected enemies, slaughtering them for a very slim portion of rations. During the ambush, Hannah sees an enormous and grotesque demon tear the flesh from one of the enemies before vanishing in the blink of an eye. While the scene has a lot of action and a variety of emotions, it’s a little difficult to follow. It isn’t clear if the monster is one of her fellow soldiers transformed, a completely separate entity, or if she’s dissociating and watching herself as a monster. As a point of release for the suspense of the issue, this is frustrating and hurts what would be an otherwise powerful moment.
Artistically, Tomas Aira winds up elevating the comic in the quieter moments. The comic very obviously builds to the scene where Hannah either hallucinates or sees the monster, but it's interesting that the monster panel is rather uninteresting, especially when compared to the scene where Hannah realizes that she is the commanding officer. It’s very clear throughout the issue that Aira’s skill lies in conveying emotion through facial expressions and body positioning. Aira’s coloring lacks a defined palette for most of the issue, but by the back half leans heavily into shades of violet and indigo in a way that not only indicates that it is dark outside, but gives it an almost mystical setting. The forest around the soldiers takes on a life of its own when Aira reveals the twisting branches amid purple-tinted terrain.
Unfortunately, Hannah as a character sometimes doesn’t make sense. While her moral crises of killing three enemies in an ambush over a small quantity of rations is an emotional peak in the issue, Emgård overcrowds the moment with backstory about how she had vowed to never harm another living thing after shooting a bird. While dialogue and narration crowd the panels throughout the issue, it’s here that it actually becomes counterproductive to the story being told. Hannah has been portrayed as a somewhat morally conflicted character via the opening moments in the church. Aira’s facial drawings and her interactions with her comrades reveals her to be someone who is ultimately relatable and, in the world of the comic, morally just. Having the character who had been set up like that come to the realization that, in her first moment of command, has been more ruthless than she should have been is a powerful moment, and one which echoes that strong opening scene. Clogging the panels with narration about her vow makes it seem as though there isn’t enough faith in the story or character up to that point, and also makes the character less believable. A character who vowed to never hurt a living thing would probably not join the military, even if the end goal, as the comic suggests, is just to become a pilot. Hannah is a hypocrite, but the story isn’t portraying that as though it is intentional.
What The Whispering Dark #1 lacks in characterization, it makes up for in atmosphere and suspense. While being somewhat slow to start hurts the book and doesn’t give the best first impression, the nature of its four-issue run will probably ensure that readers who already bought in will stay on. There’s enough interesting elements with the opening, closing, and emotional kick in the middle to make up for some of the comic’s less refined elements. Emgård obviously has a story he intends to tell and that involves leaving readers in the dark in his opening chapter, and Aira gives everything that added layer of mystique that really works to the comic’s benefit. There’s a lot of suspense and a lot of promise of interesting things to come. It just would have been nice if the comic didn’t hold its cards so close to its chest.