Sunday, 8 February 2015

Outcast, Volume 1: A Darkness Surrounds Him Review (Robert Kirkman, Paul Azaceta)

Kyle Barnes is an outcast exorcist. He exorcises demons - but he can’t exorcise his own personal demons! Ironyyyyyyy! In this book we’ll meet a kindly reverend who’ll team up with Kyle to rid West Virginia of as many possessed people (which turns out to be quite a few!) as they can in between moping sessions. Settle in, folks, this is volume one of probably several dozen if his other titles Invincible and The Walking Dead are anything to go by, because Kirkman’s more interested in setting up long-running franchises than telling tightly plotted stories, especially when he can sell these comics’ pitches to TV execs! 

It sounds like I didn’t like Outcast Volume 1, and I didn’t love it, but it wasn’t that bad. Southern Gothic is a great subgenre that Kirkman nails and, while he’s not one of the best comics writers out there, he does know how to put together a comic. His years of experience in the industry shows and makes this book a smooth read. 

The story switches from Kyle and his gloomy life to “possession of the week” where he and the reverend play dual Constantines, exorcising demons. This approach works fine for a single volume - but over who knows how many books? It’s gonna get very formulaic, real quick. For this one though, there’s enough variety to keep it from being a boring read. 

Unlike The Walking Dead, Outcast is a fully-coloured comic and Elizabeth Breitweiser’s work wonderfully complements Paul Azaceta’s fine art in this volume. There are some lovely scenic shots of rural West Virginia and some of the horror panels of a leering possessed person were creepy. It didn’t hurt that Azaceta’s style reminded me of David Aja’s work on Hawkeye. 

So while the art team produce great pages, Kirkman’s script is the only major stumbling block to this series. The thing with enormously successful writers - comics or otherwise - is that once they reach a certain level, they are untouchable. No editor can tell them to cut pages or tighten up a plotline - said writer can eschew any and all advice and do whatever the hell they like. Which is what Kirkman does here. And there’s a lot of bloat in this book. 

From the numerous flashback sequences of Kyle remembering his abusive childhood where his possessed mother beat him, to the numerous scenes where he’s sat around his house sulking, to repeated scenes of the reverend trying to get Kyle to use his special exorcist powers (his touch burns the possessed while forcing the demons out), I just kept wishing it had less repetition to it. There’s too much setup and not enough story. 

And, like a lot of Kirkman’s stories, Outcast’s is super, super miserable! Kyle’s depressed, his wife left with his daughter and won’t let him talk to her, everyone thinks he beat them which is why they left, and he also put his mother into a vegetative state! Meanwhile the reverend’s son won’t speak to him for some reason leading to many panels where characters are holding their head in their hands. Families are breaking up, people are punching other people, there’s plenty of gore. It’s so humourless and dark that it’s a very grim read. 

At least with The Walking Dead there was excitement and tension to balance out the mopiness. Here, we’re not given much of a story and Kirkman really lays the misery on thickly. And, while the characters do seem real, they just aren’t interesting. I get that Kyle’s had a difficult life but I really don’t care - these aren’t characters you can feel close to. 

Outcast’s horror is cliched Hollywood pap. Jump scares abound and the corny possessed routine plays out with no originality. Ever seen The Exorcist or any of its many ripoffs where a possessed person has contorted their body, spat blood and/or vomit at someone while swearing and laughing, and a priest or holy person has stood over them splashing holy water and waving a cross/rosary combo in their face? Get ready to see it again, many times in this book alone! And what about that creepy old guy with the weird eyes? Oh it’s Satan. Zzz....

What’s weird is that Kirkman actually BELIEVES demon possession is real. In the afterword to the first issue he writes: 

“The scariest things are REAL. Ever seen… The Exorcist? … Very real, very scary. There is evidence that supports the possibility that demonic possession is very much real.” 

...right. Sure it is, Kirkman. 

The first volume of Outcast isn’t bad. Kyle’s not the most compelling protagonist but the story, while scattered, does hold the attention, and the art is pretty good too. But the formula of miseryguts main character exorcising yet another possessed person playing out in volume after volume? It’s fine for one book but I’m not sure this setup is enough to sustain readers’ attention over the long run. 

One thing’s for sure: expect the Outcast TV show to be headed our way very soon!

Outcast, Volume 1: A Darkness Surrounds Him

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