It’s nice to get shocked every once in a while. A good horror story can do just that: give you a jolt of energy that makes you happy to be alive … paradoxically apart from at least some of the characters of the story you are immersed in. The fun of reception lays in the interplay between the author and the reader though the text … and when said text is psychologically or emotionally charged as in the case of a horror story, its believability is contingent on the author’s guiding the flow of the story and the reader’s ability to suspend his/her disbelief. If both crucial points are achieved, every turn of a page becomes a cliffhanger and every depiction in and out of the panel is lovingly devoured by the voraciousness of both the story’s progression as well as the reader’s craving to see what horror looms at the top left corner of the next page. (Sight divergence between a digital copy and an old-school comic may apply.)
These are some of the broader elements that you can find in Rowans Ruin, a comic about blogging, ghost-hunting, house-swapping and mystery-solving (not necessarily in that order). It tells the story of Katie, an American blogger who changes homes over the summer with Emily, the owner of the Rowans Rise estate in England, both young ladies seemingly in dire need for some change of scenery. The trick is that what seemed to be a deal of a lifetime for Katie, who got a big-ol’ house all for herself while Emily got stuck in a much smaller apartment with Emily’s parents, turns into a creepy haunted place with ghosts and bodies, all the while the protagonist’s ideological fight-or-flight struggle unfolds in front of our eyes. What differs from the Scooby-Doo-type of mystery story is that in this case Katie has an innate ability to sense the supernatural, which in turn obviously makes the ghosts real, because what use is a power if not exploited in some shape or form (which is a lovely misnomer that also on the law of attraction). Consequently, the blood is real and the whole whodunit ordeal carries the flow of the story between the mystery solving and the jump scares.
Before I reveal who actually dang dun it, let’s take a closer look at the nuts and bolts of Rowans Ruin, of what visually works and how, because just blabbering on about a comic in verbal form alone is another misnomer that hardly stays appetizing for long.
All good works begin in medias res, right? Rowans Ruin starts with Katie’s distress call and her crashing through the window of the Rowans Rise house in an attempt to flee a seemingly ominous figure that we see in the shadowy background of the last panel on the first page. By referring to IT, we are immediately led to believe that we are dealing with something that could be supernatural. The large BARAKOOOM sound effect adds to the visually maddening scene of P1 (as Katie is trying to find her bearings), while functionally and symbolically bleeding into the gutter (of the unknown), which makes the very first page as enticing creepy.
The sound effect is repeated two pages later (P2), this time adding to its own visual and sound value as it is accompanied by the dark androgynous figure, literally jumping both at Katie and the reader. The third page in this perfectly short, strong, cryptic and on-point prologue makes an abrupt change from the blue-and-black background color of the previous two pages. The more striking red-and-black splash page only leaves the reader in suspense and visual shock as the mysterious nature of events does not allow you to think logically, since you are (through Katie) symbolically hunted and in fear of your life.
The sparse explanation given to us in the captions on these three pages creates just enough confusion and unease that the pace of reading and the pictorial flow of the story remain balanced. This could in fact be extended to Katie’s balance of fear and determination to shed light on the goings-on. Interestingly, the creature and Katie share the blueish tones, which could be an indication of their possible connection. This is of course heavily overshadowed by the direness of the scene, the creature’s unnatural red eyes, imposing presence and even somewhat freakish, monsterly depiction of the right hand, where the index and middle finger come off more as claws than fingers. (This could of course be only a matter of perspective, but when danger looms, the mind can visualize all sorts of accompanying nastiness.)
The emphasis on these introductory pages cannot be understressed, because they set the tone of the story, where the reader becomes conditioned to expect such extreme situations in the future. A stark contrast is made in the following pages, where we learn the background of the story six months earlier, where Katie wants to move for the summer for some needed change of scenery. Danger, urgency and the black gutter are replaced by lighter tones and a safer family environment … or rather an innocent one, since we learn that Katie’s parents are opposed to even the more gentle of profanities. This stark contrast can serve as the calm before the storm. When Katie finds Emily’s estate in Rowans Rise and the two young ladies chat online, the horizontal page division in P3 is a typical and particularly useful comics technique of both visually separating the characters (of events) and grouping them together. The left (leading) side belongs to Katie in her sterile (white) apartment, while the right (supporting) side is Emily’s in her more color-rich environment. Some potential unease can be felt by the thick red drapes in the background and Emily’s dark shadow, perhaps both sly reminders of the events from the beginning, while her facial dissatisfaction and loss for words further the mystery of her state and surroundings at Rowans Rise.
While we may be led to believe that the shadow in the last panel of the P3 sequence is Emily’s, its slightly more prominent brow ridge and the angle of the shadow in relation to the lighting of the room may in fact be a red herring, indicating the presence of something mysterious. (Something similar can be observed in P4 as well, however, referring to Katie.)
As Katie arrives in England, her “American” forwardness and exuberance over her exciting new experience cannot be overshadowed … apart from her entering Emily’s room (P4) which her British house-swapper has specifically forbidden to enter. This is a clear red flag of mythic proportions, because the mere mention of a secret not only further adds to its mystique but viciously entices the reader as well. As already mentioned, there is another pictorial red flag in the form of another looming shadow spreading diagonally across Emily’s room. The depiction can already be a sign of (either Katie’s or) Emily’s impending dark experience, but it may also point that the dark, shadowy presence (or the IT) from the beginning is connected to the mansion and not her. While the diagonal position of the shadow can be objectively just the product of lighting, it adds vigorousness and vibrancy not just to this particular panel, but the rest of the page. Further, since the angle is slightly tilted, the panel itself acts as both a balancing force of the page as well as the oddity that will inevitably become the norm at the Rowans estate.
Katie as a blogger/vlogger naturally has to keep her fanbase up to speed on a daily basis, so the following sequence of panels (P5, P6) provides a more raw, uncut and personal account of her new surroundings. A couple of things to point out here: the panel’s shape resembling a smart phone and the jagged (radio) balloons mark a very distinct and genuine depiction of our current lifestyle, where everything has to be (immediately) shared online. Stylistically, these two pages not only invite you into Katie’s own little (big digital) world, but also mark the passage of time through the battery indicator. While the relative fast battery consumption is a daily nuisance for most of us, in the comic this is attributed to some unknown force with a taste for electrical nourishment (not as tongue-in-cheek as it turns out). This elegantly ties the weird event of the story to real life, while the last (appropriately tilted) panel showcases the real “horror” of our current generation: the dreaded black phone screen.
The reading pattern on these two pages is the normal Z-type; however, there is a missed opportunity in making a double-page spread where the third panel that ends with the words “to the right” would actually continue to the right, so the first panel on the second page would be the fourth one in this sequence. The slight confusion is more obvious in the printed version than the digital one, since the latter (as shown here) depicts a clear separation between the two pages, while the first retains at least the potential for blockage in the reading process and consequently the flow of the story.
In either case, this marks the beginning of Katie’s more and more intense research into the less than normal unfolding events. When her mother expresses her concern about Emily seeming haunted, all of it inevitably leads to Katie’s nightmare that acts as her premonition. As stranger things must inevitably ensue in an appropriately haunted environment, Katie finds Emily’s room unlocked. An innocent peek inside reveals a plethora of tools and techniques for supernatural-overtion and ghost-prevention: from horseshoes (warding off evil) dule tree branches (associated with hangings and witches), bells and home-made booby traps under the window to the mysterious white circle under the bed. Mysterious at least for Katie, since she obviously does not find the Winchester lads appealing enough to watch Supernatural. In true 1980s Miami Vice fashion where all drugs had to have been partaken of and where every pretty-boy detective knew every type of blow [wink wink], Katie assumes the role of the charismatic investigator and naturally has a taste of the white substance (P7). Shockingly, it is revealed to be that new fad all the crazy kids on the streets like to call NaCl … or salt. Amidst her newly rediscovered supernatural sensing ability it can be seen as strange that she would not be aware that the prominent white spice has been the salty anti-demonic instrument in folklore and popular culture. Nonetheless, the overall creepiness of her situation can indeed become overwhelming fast, even to the point of inattentional blindness and saccadic suppression … or at least their mental/emotional counterparts.
As Katie goes out to the pub to find some renewed vigor and seeks safety in the social environment, she culturally, dialectically and visually stands out. Generally, such a distinction can be either extremely positive or overtly negative – especially in a smaller tightly-knit environment, where conformity and conservatism take precedence over differentiation and intrusion. In this case, we have a wonderful series of panels that appropriately culminate at the turn of the page, where Katie strikes the fancy of a local lad who visually dominates over her. The contrast in their pictorial appearance adds to the conflict, where the man leans in towards her in the first panel of the P8 sequence, fingers pointing at her, while hers are in a defensive state, as she occupies less and less space in the panel(s). The middle panels depict her verbal indifference to the man’s approach and pictorial entrapment in the two vertical panels. Further, the man(’s torso) pictorially entraps her in this series of four panels. In the last one, even the balloon placement can be viewed as a nod to Katie’s gradual ensnarement, since her balloon is also getting pictorially squeezed in by the more centrally placed double speech balloon of the man. The only sign of comfort (seemingly for the reader rather than Katie) is the strange hand reaching for the man … and even that is an indicator of further conflict.
Overall, a simple, yet powerful use of basic shapes and color to indicate intrusion, defensive position, overlapping and dynamic posture, which all effortlessly carry the story forward.
The hand in question belongs to the constable James who proves to be the knight in shining armor … in more ways than one. In a rapid jump forward, we get a very abrupt change of pace and scenery that find Katie and the policeman on a somewhat romantic boat trip. As she finally trusts him enough to show him Emily’s room, we see that their love bond is somewhat contrasted. James’ skepticism about the oddities in the house, vigilant rationale and safe line of reasoning clashes with Katie’s more head-on approach and belief in the quite literally metaphysical events (or at least struggling to come to terms with what is real and what is beyond real).
Katie stubbornly refuses to let James spend the night with her and takes her brave stance. As the use of shadows continues, they resemble more and more the creature that was chasing her at the beginning. The eeriness is reinforced by the Psycho scene of P9. At least that is what the stereotype of the hot woman in the shower (with foam or in this case the medium shot covering all her naughty parts) seems to have become. The use of the refrain from Sia's song Chandelier can be at first glance viewed as Katie letting her guard down and enjoying the rubbing and scrubbing … however, as the song actually seems to be about depression, alcohol, drug abuse and the struggle to deal with these pains, the protagonist actually lets us into her state of mind where she tries to cover her frightfulness with bravery and boldness. When the figure appears outside her shower in the decaying-green color, Katie’s suddenly outstretched fingers and eyes wide open perfectly capture the response you get when you either get scared or feel that tingling sensation, those pesky shivers down the spine. The silence in the panel is here used for greater dramatic purpose, to provide the pictorial shock that extends (and to a degree echoes) beyond words.
One of the best uses of pictures in comics is when they either indirectly or overtly depict elements that the author does not want literally expressed. The value of seeing the lurking figure thus cannot be equally voiced with words, because words would be too descriptive and would hinder the shock-value of the third panel in P9. The first panel does indeed have one caption placed directly under the dark shadow, so there is almost no way for the reader to miss it. This creates the desired element of danger, where you know someone or rather something is lurking at Katie, so you expect even greater unease, as she climbs the stairs, getting even closer to her hazard. The “reading” of the third silent (and up close and personal) panel therefore stresses the reader’s unease and expectations even further.
The final page of the first issue appropriately ends on a massive cliffhanger, as we finally get the full-size view of the lurking creature. The tilted panel adds to the dynamic, contrasting figure of the symbolically vulnerable Katie clad only in a towel, unaware of anyone behind her, and the menacing (undead) creature (coming forth from the shadow), who is already pictorially upon her. The motion lines further add to the pressing situation. Since the level of narration and awareness appropriately caters to the readers rather than Katie, we feel sympathetic towards her and fearful for her well-being.
Katie blacks out when she finally experiences the creature in full force at the beginning to the second issue. A short interlude into her childhood reveals that her apparent ability to sense the supernatural has been dormant, so the head-on collision here was a bit overwhelming for her. Since the police have found no wrongdoing, she has to resort to her own investigation of the Rowans estate in the supernatural domain of the … library. There, she finds an article about a gruesome attack by an unknown attacker on Emily and her sister Maggie, the latter being in a coma in the local hospital for 10 years since then.
As Katie tries to indirectly get some information out of Emily about any potential goings-on at the house, Emily’s blatant denial of any kind of (spooky) activity is almost alarming. (Especially now, since Katie and the reader are aware of supernatural shenanigans) When the second panel is understood in the context of the P11 sequence, it displays what I like to call intentional conflict, a technique where pictorial and verbal elements in a given panel/picture are deliberately at odds with one-another. Emily’s verbal denial is thus negated by her expression of anger/defiance/indignation, which can only mean she is hiding something. And since the premise of the story along with the recently uncovered article point to sinister, life-threatening matters, such a panel is beyond revealing for both character-building and the plot of the story.
Since the girls are skyping, the reader in this case is not the only one who is privy to Emily’s expression. A crucial element, since the (detective) Katie can see right through her and goes to visit her sister. By holding her hand, Katie unintentionally gets a shocking response from her in the form of another vision – of the attacker’s hands bludgeoning Emily into unconsciousness. This time Katie finds herself on the other side of the law, as the nurse calls the police. As James picks her up and begins to drive her somewhere, she begins to fear for her life. Fueled by the accumulation of the previous events, her feeling of being alone and misunderstood is used as a narrative plot twist … In this case a false one, because James’ intentions are pure, because he merely wanted to show her the accident site of Emily and Maggie’s parents. This scene of honesty and revelation gives Katie a chance to unburden herself and reveal (to us) that the dead man hunting her was in fact more interested in Emily. As Katie feels responsible to find out the truth and help anyone involved, the supernatural element of the story takes another twist, because the danger of the dead man is lessened in favor of the mystery of how he is connected to Emily and what she is hiding, not just what is happening at the house.
As luck would have it, (and by that I mean the uncanny burden of knowing everyone in a small town) Katie and the librarian Theresa begin speculating that the dead man could be Emily’s former boyfriend Dylan. Katie finds renewed vigor and is determined to have another one-on-one session with him. As she falls asleep with Enid Blyton’s The Enchanted Wood in hand, we can perhaps view this as a modern shamanic ritual, where the otherworldly trance is a dream of climbing the magic tree towards the clouds of higher perception, the quite “real” perception of ghosts.
This marks another slight change in the narration, as the underlying elements at end of the second issue are more humorous than horrifying. Visually and stylistically, fear is replaced by the fervor to comprehend, as Katie dreams up or rather summons up not just Dylan, but a whole gamut of ghosts, canine spirits to boot. While they still seem to be reaching towards her with red eyes and streaks of blood, they are nevertheless depicted as human not zombie-like. The light-blue color is also more indicative of the default spiritual realm rather than the evil nastiness and, last but not least, Katie’s tongue-in-cheek blog entry alone can be enough to see that she has gotten over the hump as her plan seems to be working.
The mood gets lighter still as Katie tries to have a conversation with the ghosts, which is all in vain … Until she touches Dylan and we get a flashback from his POV. While at first seemingly obsessed with her, his love is not accepted full-heartedly by her and we get another twist, as he becomes more of an overbearing boy-toy. What is more, he neck is cut before exiting the house, the pain spiritually felt by Katie as well. Stylistically, the black gutter is in the end replaced by the red one, creating a “bloody” outline. As we only get a glimpse of the reflection of the attacker, we are still literally and symbolically kept in the dark of the identity of the assailant, while his death is clearly linked to the Rowans estate.
As Katie discussed this mysterious matter with Theresa again, she thinks Emily’s seriousness and reservations are direct results of all the goings-on in the house (from the attack on her sister onwards), which made her susceptible to spiritual attack. As Therese in P16 remarks that Katie should be in fact talking to the house, not ghosts, this offbeat or even comical comment can have a much deeper meaning. If this reference points to The Epic of Gilgamesh, in which the god Ea indirectly warns Utnapishtim (the Babylonian Noah) how to survive the ensuing flood by telling the house of it. With such a mythological reading, the seemingly nonsensical comment suddenly not only makes a ton of sense, but it symbolically expands the meaning of Katie’s struggle to “survive”. Also, it is beyond fitting that this is pointed out by Theresa. As a librarian or a “guardian” of old, sacred knowledge, she preserves the connection to the Gilgamesh myth, the oldest and perhaps greatest of epic stories humanity has thus far retained. What is more, this kind of reading reinforces Theresa’s serious/stoic expression in the second panel, so the joke is that there is no joke and we can in fact take her words seriously. Further, since Mike Carey’s work is particularly flooded with (in)direct mythological references (pun intended) and he has incorporated the Gilgamesh epic in his Unwritten series as well, a reader of his cannot but help him or herself to partake of the mythological pie … with a cup of tea of course.
After a brief interlude of appropriately Shakespearian proportions, as Katie and James attend the theater, her comment of seeing the performance of Hamlet is priceless, because it is beyond obvious and thought-provoking at the same time. Saying that Hamlet reflects the human condition, when we have been (at least in the West) brought up pondering about the meaning of “to be or not to be”, is pointing to dualisms of human experience. On the other hand, this can be just a throw-away comment from someone who knows just enough about Shakespeare to realize his work is really deep and really not worth further scratching your head about what it actually means … or if the meaning expressed in Hamlet’s words and actions is actually meant to be linearly and formalistically straightforward. In other words, is it not but dreadfully relative?
From my own interlude to this Shakespearean interlude, Katie decides to get rid of the ghost traps and sleep in Emily’s room in hopes of getting to the bottom of things. While James wanted to stay with her, she would not let him. In true mythological fashion, the heroine has to face the real/final challenge of her quest alone (and what is more, she has to embrace it and not be forced into it), despite all the potential dangers (and often because of them). Her “power” and drive to combat the unknown circumstances is the central feature of cultural heroes around the world and has permeated from mythology proper into every artistic endeavor (this comic being a good example as well).
As Katie writes Emily of her plan in hopes of helping her (P18), we are left with Emily’s blunt expression of disapproval and what seems to be either fear or anger. The yellow outline of the gutter is an interesting choice that in a sense negates the element of enhanced danger, since Katie is potentially more vulnerable without Emily’s safeguards in place. Also, the last darker close-up panel of Emily’s face is inserted into Katie’s narrative and tilted to indicate a change or disturbance of sorts. At first reading, we can understand this sequence of panels quite differently (as will become even clearer further on), especially since we generally do not pay that close attention to every detail in every panel, the angles, shots and even the meaning of hues in the given context, when we are immersed in a story. This is the paradox of immediate pictorial recognition and often blind reading of also often hidden pictorial clues.
The result of Katie’s ghostly test is another plot twist, as she sees a serene collage of imagery of Emily’s parents, sister and dogs. The image (P19) is thus “disturbing” more so because it is not disturbing. Katie’s powers of perception are getting more potent as her mythic journey continues, so she is able to feel love (in this case rather than hate) from everyone around Emily. However, since Emily still feels trapped to her, Katie takes one last mystery-solving effort …
By going to the former residence of Emily’s family, she is treated with disdain, which inevitably leads her back to the library. Theresa points to Emily always curiously escaping the danger, yet this is still at odds with her feelings of entrapment that Katie felt through her “séances”. Katie hurries back to the house to search for something and she does: the dog figurine with which Maggie was bludgeoned … still covered in blood. Katie’s affirmation of foul play is immediately reaffirmed with a swift blow to the back of the head in the concluding splash page. The culprit is Emily. The sequence of panels prior to that (P20, P21) exemplifies dynamic panel movement without oversaturation or overuse of different camera angles. A couple of tilts and overlapping is enough to show Katie hurrying up the stairs and searching for the object that is eventually focused on in the central panel on the next page. The establishing shot with the rain obviously adds to the drama and together with the final panel where Katie gets attacked frames these two panels between anticipation and danger.
At this point, however, we have to let the suspension of disbelief play on and not dwell on the swiftness of Emily’s flight back to England or the fact that her blow with her home-made nailboard should have killed the heroine.
As it turns out, Emily is a psychopath through and through. The start of the final issue is the start of finally putting things together and uncovering the truth behind the hauntings at Rowans Rise. Before Emily would indeed beat Katie to death despite her offering help and trying to understand her, Katie manages to touch her, which opens the flood gates of comprehension. Emily cannot stand affection of any kind and has often found solace in literally and gruesomely removing those closest to her from her life. The destructive irony in all of this is that the love of those near her was and still is so strong that they keep showing up as ghosts, in a sense perpetuating her (self-imposed) hell in this life. The flashback (P22, P23) reveals Emily’s antisocial reality as the panels swiftly build on her anger that culminates in killing her family and even the dogs. Even pictorially, the superimposed panels on the right of P22 physically and symbolically do not fit in with the loving agenda of Emily’s family, while P23 mashes and bashes the images even further as her fit of madness and her killing spree are held together by her outbursting scream in the upper left, where “seeing red” is pictorially extended to the red outlines of the boarder and the red tones in her beyond irritated expression. Her scream is the pictorial glue for her abusive memories and compulsive action, as she deals with her pain by projecting it towards others and through others that were merely showing her love and devotion. Symbolically, the pain of comprehension is even greater, since it directly engulfs those nearest to her.
As Katie realizes in horror that Emily has murdered her parents as well, Emily’s response is a cold-blooded reaction of anger and the projection of blame … both because she has been found out and because of the overbearing emotional discharge, an energy that engulfs her earthly worldview as well as the spiritual realm from which she seems not to be able to escape.
Pictorially, P24 and P25 respectively capture the shock and defensiveness of Katie (through tears and hands) and grittiness and remorselessness of Emily (through a deathly gaze and teeth grinding). Since both panels are superimposed and Emily’s vicious look follows directly after Katie’s distress, the contrast is visually that much more striking, psychologically more emotional and quite simply effective.
Whether Katie makes use of Emily’s villainous exposé or displays the proverbial heroic fortitude, she manages to run from the room, her would-be-ripper in pursuit. In P26, Katie gets pictorially trapped by Emily’s dark figure, as her arm cuts off the panel and gives her only a narrow window of (visual) escape. While there could be some dark humor in Emily “seeing” her verbally as well as visually, since Emily is the one engulfed in shadow, the danger in this case is fixed on the protagonist, since Emily is facing away from the reader.
To keep the tit-for-tat game going, Katie herself cuff off the electricity of the house, catching up to the events at the beginning of the comic. Pictorially, this gives the authors a chance to present the reader a different view of the action, this time with greater awareness of the narrative in progress, plus an opportunity to tie up all the loose ends … particularly referring to the instances of intentionally vague depictions which served as a plot device.
Emily’s dark pursuit gets interrupted by James, who came back to check on Katie. Along with Katie’s distress call this interestingly stacks the deck against the villain, not just the protagonist who is caught between the ghosts and the murderer. After Emily swiftly kills James as well, she turns her attention back to Katie, who is beginning to realize that the ghosts are becoming more a nuisance than a threat. The real revelation comes when she realizes that the ghosts are not aware of their death and are essentially “living on” in ignorance, symbolically ignorant of their essential unwontedness (especially as it relates to Emily).
If we compare P27 to P2, we see the change in Katie’s perception and POV, as both the reader and her become to a large extent immune to the large BARAKOOOM sound effect that echoed so boldly at the very beginning. While Dylan rushes after Katie, her expression in the two moment-to-moment panel transitions gives ample evidence of the heroine’s strength and growth in the story. The first panel (second in the P27 sequence) still displays shock, but the second one (fourth in the P27 sequence) is already defying. This is stylistically stressed by the oblique shape of the first panel (reflecting Katie being startled) and the (metaphorically) grounded rectangle that is the second panel. Note also the position of the word balloons in the latter. They visually continue right after the sound effect, making it as if Katie’s stoic response actually overshadows the large noise, but the balloons themselves also slightly cover the red tones in the last panel, not completely negating the level of danger, but downplaying it quite considerably.
Arguably, the abrupt change in Katie’s expressions in these two panels can be more than enough to portray her steadfast approach, but the “hidden” pictorial details as described above add (subliminal) volumes towards immediate recognition of the intended narration and reading gratification itself.
We are inevitably led to the final faceoff between the protagonist and the antagonist … and a whole bunch of ghosts, of course. Katie’s realization of how ghosts seem to work and her power of perception make for a potent combination. Despite the fact that she is caught smack in the middle of her opposition’s home base, she realizes that the ghosts are a hindrance to Emily, not her, which leads to Emily slowly getting overpowered by them … or through her own subconscious, if we were to take the ghosts as metaphor of her own egomaniacal rage and perhaps even deeply rooted guilt.
P28 and P29 pictorially capture the process of Emily getting engulfed by her “loving” ghosts. The first panel begins her downfall, as the two-tier narration makes her realize too late what is happening, while the reader can immediately see the ghosts closing around her. At this point, Emily is still on her feet and her balloons can symbolically be the last-ditch effort to pictorially separate her(self) from her surroundings, to remain relatively safe in her own mind and thoughts (expressed in the balloons). The ethereal nature of the ghosts, however, goes beyond the linguistic depictions (in other words the ghosts don’t speak) and since she is left without her charms and booby traps, she is about to implode.
The ghostly love is clearly overwhelming for the antisocial killer and even her weapon of choice cannot help her. Pictorially, her vortex of ethereal smothering is strengthened by the light blue color of the blade alone. Since the ghosts are of the same color, she cannot hurt them either way … Where’s the salt, when you need it …
Last but not least, the non-threatening color of the panel boarders strengthens the fact that the element of danger (previously established by the red and black) has indeed shifted.
Although Katie gets a hold of the knife, she lets Emily get consumed by the spirits. As she flees the house (assumingly) for the final time, she crumbles in the puddle outside, figuratively lying amidst the horrors of the events. The adrenaline dump after any kind of strenuous ordeal is reflected in the following swift conclusion to the story. (Plus, water is a long-standing symbol of change.)
As Katie attends James’ funeral, the obligatory ceremony of the final rite of passage briefly touches on the issue of what lays beyond life (or death). Although Katie’s despondent expression in P30 can be expected as the coffin is being lowered, the message in this panel is actually more uplifting. The view from within the grave outwards reveals a U-shape that extends upwards, away from the dormancy of dirt and leads towards the sky (freedom, life), pictorially engulfing or leading Katie upwards as well, all the while the minister verbally expresses the Christian notion of afterlife. The potential for hope is clear.
As Katie prepares to leave back home to attend her parents’ funeral as well, the heroine’s state of mind remains in flux, as the motives of dread and hope continue to interlock until the very end of the comic. Arguably, her emotional agony of losing most of her loved ones is an instance is rather incomprehensible to most of us. We can imagine this as the interplay of her positive attitude as the protagonist in this story (the prototypical heroine who has overcome the physical demon) and her actual dark emotional reality as a person (the demon within her psyche still remains).
This is visually evident in her farewell to Theresa (P31), as she takes responsibility (and blame) for the death of her loved ones, yet relates a strong message of telling the truth and facing the reality of what has happened at Rowans Rise. Trying to find reason in all of it as she walks away, the bars of the cemetery gate become the bars of her psychological prison … a symbolic extension of Emily’s own (spiritual) entrapment. One final question we can ask ourselves, however, is whose prison it actually is. Who is really behind bars: Katie or Theresa (with the rest of the community there)?
Katie, nevertheless, standing tall in the end (P32) takes her final jump forward … in mythic fashion. As the heroes of old have always inevitable stood alone, because their journey was not for them alone, but for the larger social environment they find themselves in. Consequently, Katie may indeed be leaving, but she has served the community there by solving the mystery and hopefully bringing some semblance of peace to Rowans estate as well. While collateral damage (regardless of its psychological or ideological range) is a demanding necessity in the story (if not life as well), the personal progression that hopefully leads to social progress as well should always be a goal to strive towards.
The concluding image of the comic is an appropriate splash page of Katie being flanked by the ghosts of what we can presume to be her parents and James. The concluding conundrum or rather a rhetorical question of Katie’s narrow path in life (as the mythic heroine) that is nevertheless accompanied by ghosts (as the heroine’s helpers) also gives us one final nod to Hamlet and surely answers the question of who is left behind bars as stated above; namely, no one (except perhaps Emily).
The question of being and nonbeing, however, in this case takes on a different façade, because the supernatural reality of the narrative in this comic extends the fatherly ghostly motivation for Hamlet. While the prince’s execution of his predicament (tasteless pun intended) and its outcome may be quite different, Katie in the end leads the path of denouement with a paradoxically nifty turn of events. A happy ending to a ghost story? How ghastly, indeed!
If I try to sum things up, Rowans Ruin is a comic that captures some of the essence of good horror narrative: supernatural intrigue as plot device, psychological horror, interplay between the physical and the spiritual, humor, sex and (since this is indeed a comic) appropriate use of sly (if not subliminal) visualization and color. Having recently read Emily Carrol’s horrifically marvelous Through the Woods, Rowans Ruin creepily continued my current taste for the supernatural, although through different style, structure and technique.
The biggest issue might be that the story (particularly the conclusion) feels rushed at times, especially considering that the authors are obviously no slouches when it comes to deep, epic storytelling. Mike Carey in particular excels in long narrative arks where his vast knowledge of mythological backbones of modern stories shines through the mastery of ideological interpretation of current, popular and political affairs.
As the above examples show (without even mentioning the exceptional covers of all four issues), Mike Perkins’ artistry flows seamlessly, as he captures the eerily essentials of Carey’s verbal vigilance, while Andy Troy’s coloring unmistakably captures the emotional extremes (of darker red tones and gentler, ethereal blue hues for example), all to the point where the reader recognizes the narrative fluidity from the first page onwards. The shock value and mystery of the first pages lay down the foundations of this house of horror, but it is the twists and turns and continued rise of the stories of the house that is Rowans Ruin that make the reading experience beyond enjoyable.
On a personal level, my initial idea was to do to a more general review, but as I began writing, it just felt more natural to engage in a bit more in-depth analysis, in the process indulging my own voracious appetite for comics reading, while applying scrutiny and expressing appreciation for the creators and their work.
The game of interpretation is always fun to play, but the trick is in trying to find balance between structural analysis and pure fandom, where the first can lead to overinterpretation and the latter can succumb to subjective blindness. I admit I can go overboard with just such rhetoric when I get in the zone of visual analysis, however, I would like to think there is merit in trying to understand the basics of narration/storytelling and providing a (hopefully) meaningful account of the good, the bad and sometimes the ugly of the subject matter.
Hence the title of this (again, hopefully) series of enhanced reviews that will explore the ins and outs of (predominantly) comics. Just like comics were said to be the bastard child of literature and art proper, yet proved to be the heir to the visual narrative throne, I hope that How it works series will bridge the gap between academic inquiry and popculture appreciation, because comics still seem to be for the most part parceled between the two often ideologically opposing approaches. Similarly, as the Buddha’s proverbial middle way is hard to achieve, let alone sustain, it is nevertheless a valiantly potent goal to have and to share the results with.
(All picture references taken from:
Carey, M. and Perkins, M. (2016). Rowans Ruin. Los Angeles: BOOM! Studios.)
Special thanks and much appreciation to both Mike Carey and Mike Perkins for their helpful comments in reviewing this review ... for your reviewing pleasure.
For reasons of extreme prejudice, the author of this blog wishes to remain anonymous …