Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Review: The Awakening

The Awakening original graphic novel
Oni Press
Story: Neal Shaffer
Art: Luca Genovese

Gialli thrillers tend to rely on a very specific plot template that delights devotees but often falls flat with casual viewers: There's a faceless killer with a fondness for oh-so-kinky black leather gloves who stalks and kills a series of (usually beautiful and scantily clad) victims, typically by strangulation or extremely bloody stabbing/slashing (razors work nicely). Police investigate, but it's an amateur sleuth / witness / intended victim who unmasks the killer -- who's revealed to be a character introduced earlier.

That's it, really; it doesn't vary much.

The Awakening is an homage to that giallo formula -- named for a popular series of Italian pulp novels with yellow (giallo) covers -- with creators Neal Shaffer and Luca Genovese hitting all the appropriate marks. Unfortunately, they rarely do more than that.

The story starts off promising: Teen-age Francesca is the new kid at the exclusive all-girls Grenrock Academy, where her classmates are, of course, only vague caricatures destined for the killer's knife. There's promiscuous Rachel, affable Morgan, bespectacled Elizabeth, cigarette-smoking Chris, curly-haired Michelle, and a handful of others who act as plaid-skirted scenery.

Still, the girls' interactions hint at possibilities for solid character development. However, those are never realized, because the plot has an important milestone to meet: the first grisly murder. You can probably even guess the victim.

Although they're spared the killer's knife, the male characters are subjected to the same broad portrayals. Their primary purpose is to draw suspicion, gaze intently from the sidelines, or help to define the female characters by serving as authority figures (police detective, doctor, father, teacher). The latter aspect is made more pronounced by the similar physical appearances of Det. Landis, school psychologist Dr. Olsen, and Elizabeth and Francesca's fathers. All four have beards, and in several panels, one hirsute character is nearly indistinguishable from the next.

To be fair, characterization is rarely the strong point in suspense/horror, and even less so in the formulaic gialli. So, perhaps those problems in The Awakening can be chalked up to the shortcomings of the genre it's honoring. But the plot, which, by the nature of giallo, should be at least fairly straightforward -- faceless fetishist stabs girls, gets caught by amateur -- becomes mired in the introduction of a mysterious religious order, murky motives and a plot twist that fails to deliver in the end.

Genovese's bold, moody art is the book's strong point. His depictions of Grenrock Academy and the nearby town are beautiful, like foundations for landscape paintings. His figures are fluid and full of life, which lends impact to the gruesome murder scenes. However, some of Genovese's storytelling decisions are puzzling, particularly his use of inset frames to emphasize minor details, or the extremely close face shots occasionally employed for no discernable reason.

The Awakening has the basic elements of a decent thriller, but may have fared better if Shaffer and Genovese had used giallo as a starting point rather than a template, and experimented with the genre's conventions instead of mimicking them.

The Awakening is scheduled for release today from Oni Press for $9.95.

What others say:
Johanna at Cognitive Dissonance
David at Yet Another Comics Blog
David at Precocious Curmudgeon