Through the Woods (2014)
Writer/Artist: Emily Carroll
Margaret K. McElderry Books
One of the things that make folktales a happy hunting ground for critics and scholars is the ambiguous ending. Is the protagonist dead, alive, disappeared or simply transformed into a (speaking) tree? Ambiguous endings, by definition, invite readers to make up their own minds and that’s never a bad thing. Canadian artist Emily Carroll, in her graphic anthology Through the Woods, pulled off a series of near-perfect ambiguous endings; perfect horror story climaxes that combine impeccable lighting, a gothic-meets-Craig-Thompson aesthetic and an economy with words far beyond her years.
Carroll’s online comics have a cult following. This volume includes previously published online stories as well as some new material. The collection begins with the story Our Neighbour’s House, where we meet three young girls living in a dangerously cold place with their father. When the father leaves on an unspecified errand, promising to be back in three days, the girls’ tenacity is put to the test. They seem to be coping well, but you know trouble’s afoot when the oldest sister is charmed by a mysterious stranger in a wide-brimmed hat.
The major elements of Carroll’s style are all evident in the first story itself. Her panels flow out of a solid sheet of darkness, like the way you read under the covers (her prologue to the book, in fact, talks about precisely this). Her colours are bold and assured. She often assigns a particular colour as a stand-in for a character (more on this later). And then there’s her idiosyncratic lettering style, a lanky almost-cursive with a distinctive 45 degree-slant to the ‘g’s and ‘y’s. Later on, in A Lady’s Hands Are Cold, the lettering even takes centrestage when an eerie, disembodied song flows onto the panels in a wave.
Her panels flow out of a solid sheet of darkness, like the way you read under the covers (her prologue to the book, in fact, talks about precisely this). Her colours are bold and assured. She often assigns a particular colour as a stand-in for a character.
A Lady’s Hands Are Cold is Carroll’s intelligent reworking of the Bluebeard story. A young woman marries a nobleman whose previous wife appears to have died under mysterious circumstances. The nobleman’s appearances in the strip are marked by the colour blue. This works at several levels because even in his absence, the presence of blue things in the castle reminds the wife that she is firmly under his thumb.
My Friend Janna is undoubtedly the most impressive story in this collection, however. The narrator Yvonne is an adolescent girl who acts as a conduit for her friend Janna, who pretends to be a medium just for kicks. You can tell that these two kids have gone past the point where they still enjoy the charade, but they are still at it partially out of habit ad partially because the boundaries between reality and fantasy have been eroded.
Through the Woods is reminiscent, above all, of Edgar Allan Poe, the grandmaster of the macabre. Carroll’s work has earned her plaudits from some of the biggest names in comics. Once she starts working on a longer story, there’s no telling what she will end up producing.