It was already a horror comic in many ways—I mean all those tight, enclosed spaces on the underwater research station in the first issue reminiscent of being trapped on a space ship in an Alien movie. And don’t forget the vindictive, powerful, and inexplicably motivated denizens of the deep who seem to want to wipe out humanity and return the world to their own watery domain. They have venom. Anything with venom is frightening enough. And this is, after all, a Vertigo book.
But that’s not actually what I’m talking about when I say that The Wake, issues #8 and #9, leading up to the series finale in #10, is getting scarier. It’s the mental stuff, the unexplained stuff, and the eerie way that people react to things.
[*Mild spoilers for issue #8 and issue #9 of The Wake below!]
It’s become clear over time that Scott Snyder’s storyline is actually constructed in a series of overlapping arcs with mutual influence in implications—from the far distant past and the prehistory of the Mer people to the “modern” day of Dr. Lee Archer, to this apocalyptic future day of Leeward and her quest for the source of “the signal” that may just save the world. I’ve noticed that when passing between these arcs at their points of overlap, the story, and artist Sean Murphy tends to create elaborate poster-like spreads that act as entry points, usually conveying something new with a kind of birds eye view of the passage of time. Some of these spreads are so memorable that I daresay they’ll define a new perception in Murphy’s style and design skills as an artist. In issue #8, we get one when Captain St. Mary tries to tell Leeward about the strange history of mariners through time and how they seem to connect into ancient times with the Mer people. And if you observe Murphy’s art closely, you see not only Egyptian ships, Noah’s ark, and space travel, but the Titanic. Time seems to zoom out and you encounter it all at once.
Why is that scary? Because there’s a kind of vertigo when those moments hit. As privileged as the reader is to receive the information to make these leaps between mini-arcs, it’s a lot to take in, and its supposed to be. Your vista on the narrative gets bigger, and you try to gather those precious bits of information before you’re plunged into what’s inevitable another seething moment in the constantly active story, and the challenge is to hold onto those pieces of the puzzle and not let them slip your grip when you wash up in a new place and time. It’s unsettling. That’s probably the best word for it because you’ve been moved at high speed from one point in the narrative to another. And this has a strong mental affect on the reader.
So, by “mental stuff” mentioned above, I mean what happens to us, as readers, taking this journey through points in time, but also the “mental stuff” that characters encounter. Leeward is obsessed with finding the source of the signal, and becomes even more obsessed the more opposition she faces. She needs to be maniacal enough to convince everyone around her to follow the same siren-song. And watching her get louder and louder about it is unsettling too. Snyder plays this tension well beyond what most adventure stories permit for the reader. Usually several beats sooner a storyteller will have some other influential character say “Ok, ok. Enough! We believe you. Let’s go!” But not in The Wake.
In issue #8, Leeward’s knowledge of Lee Archer is hailed merely a “coincidence” as she protests more and more vigorously, until only her belief in the face of death, urging the Captain to continue her quest is enough to cause a breakthrough of faith. In issue #9, it’s the extent of the vast journey that the piratical crew have to undertake—over 6000 miles of strange territory (and very strange encounters), that can finally lead to widespread “belief”, perhaps a collective insanity (who knows?). There’s plenty of “mental stuff” in The Wake and there always has been. Plenty to accept on faith or instinct. But issues #8 and #9 really push the envelope on how far belief can take you.
This all ties in to the “unexplained stuff” and the “eerie way people react to things”. Snyder and Murphy actually convey a massive amount of information at times, encouraging the reader to piece it together like a network, but that leaves plenty of breathing room. Issue #1 ends with the unexplained and by issue #9, we’re still dealing with the unexplained, though there is a gradual sense of a light dawning. We know the Mer people are ancient. We know they have a strange relationship with certain human beings. We know the fate of the planet hangs in an uneasy limbo. But if you’re looking for easy answers and a heavily detailed blow-by-blow of everything that’s ever happened throughout history, you’re not going to get it. And with only one issue left in the series, I venture to say that you won’t, but what you will get is the big picture. You’re beginning to see it in issue #9. And in many ways, the big picture is clearly a scarier picture than you thought.
Well, what about the “eerie way people react to things”? By that I mean that the world of The Wake becomes increasingly alien. We may think we know and understand the characters in the first few issues, though their underwater environment becomes rapidly alien and hostile, but the connections that Lee Archer makes are intuitive, as if she’s the one somehow constructing the story for us, and by the time we get to the “future”, the world we see is entirely alien and so are the characters.
This is because the reality they inhabit is so socially fragmented and shaped by strange events that it really is like watching life on another planet. What they perceive as “normal” is just eerie for us. It’s like we, meaning the “modern” past, have become their mythology. Snyder adds to this effect with strange snippets of songs and stories. And Lee Archer, of course, has become one of the most enduring, haunting stories they still entertain and reflect on. Captain St. Mary’s certainty that something connects the Mer people to mariners and his focus on “eyes” is pretty creepy in its own way. The most “normal” thing Leeward does in issue #9 is begin to doubt her beliefs. But things get way more alien, even for her, before the end.
For these reasons and more I’m a little scared to read issue #10 that completes the tale, and if possible I find the series far more scary now than I did when I picked up what I knew to be a rather classic sci-fi monster thriller in issue #1. Well played, Mr. Snyder and Mr. Murphy.
Hannah Means-Shannon is EIC at Bleeding Cool and @hannahmenzies on Twitter