DIY and Die: CROAK! It’s indie! It’s horror! It’s good!

croak
krōk/
noun
noun:
  1. 1.
    a deep hoarse sound made by a frog or a crow.
    • a deep hoarse sound resembling that of a frog or crow, especially one made by a person.
verb
  1. 1.
    (of a frog or crow) make a characteristic deep hoarse sound.
  2. 2.
    informal
    DIE.

What a perfect name.
I’m aware that this is supposed to be a weeaboo blog but I’m breaking with tradition because I feel a compulsion to spread the gospel of Alterna Comics. Like most of my article titles, this one is a little misleading, because Alterna isn’t some dodgy basement zine. They’re a real-ass comics publisher, and fairly small though they are, they’re getting creator-owned comics (a rarity in the western biz) out to the world. They’re also based in my home state of NH, and while they’ve got quite a variety of comics available they seem to have a thing for horror. All appealing to me. They also do a lot of marketing on Twitter, which is how CROAK and I crossed paths. All I needed to know was that it existed for me to be interested. But let’s backtrack a bit. I’m gonna tell you my life story.

I’ve been into comics and animation since I was a kid. Calvin and Hobbes and Pokemon are largely to blame. I’ve also been into horror since I was a kid. It started with watching the Sci Fi Channel late at night when I was supposed to be asleep and evolved into an interest in the bizarre and transgressive. These interests stayed with me through high school and into college, where I was introduced to anime. Naturally, anime got me into manga, and SURPRISE! I had actually been reading manga for years, never thinking of it as something “different”. Junji Ito and Kazuo Umezu had filled a horror comics niche for me for that western comics couldn’t (or so I thought. I know now that there’s plenty out there, but they mostly don’t do it for me).

Along comes CROAK. It’s not really the sort of fucked up fare I usually go for but its indie-ness and Alterna’s location had me interested enough to track it down. It apparently sold out at warp speed, but I eventually got my hands on the first 2 of 3 issues. So here’s the rundown:

The plot (courtesy of writer Cory Sousa) is pretty standard fare. Three friends, two guys and a girl, go into the woods to camp. They’ve got a camera with them. One of the douchier dudes starts telling a spooooooky story about a swamp, and someone dying. The other two don’t buy it, because there’s no swamp in these woods. Then the fourth friend who was there all along scares the girl. This is where things go to hell. Fourth friend was supposed to just jump out and scare her, but instead he chases her through the woods and grabs her. So she clobbers him with a rock and knocks him the fuck out into next Fuckday. As the gang is panicking, wondering what to do about their half-murdered friend, he disappears, apparently being dragged by something. They give chase, only to realize they’ve all stumbled into…a swamp!. There really was one in these woods! It’s also full of these birdfrog lookin’, plague mask-ass creatures. It’s they who dragged half-dead boy off into the woods, and there’s a lot of running and screaming as they drag off the other two dudes. By the end of #2, only the girl is left unscathed.

It’s nothing really innovative but it’s executed well. The dialogue is believable, the characters are believable (and in the case of the douchey storyteller guy, enjoyably hateable) and Sousa’s sense of when to hide info and when to cash in on all the tension he’s built is perfect. Lots of horror creators hide the scary creature until the very end, giving you tiny little glimpses until finally, at the climactic reveal, it’s not actually that creepy and is more than a little disappointing (Insidious, I’m looking at you). Sousa lets you look the creature(s) in the eyes early on though, and boy are they freaky looking, thanks to artist Francesco Iaquinta. The initially somewhat cliche-seeming use of the camera is actually what makes showing the creature that early work. Instead of being a premature nut-busting, seeing the monster through the camera creates a little bit of emotional and chronological distance between the monster and the characters. It let’s them, and the reader, go, “nah it’s not real, it’s not there.” It functions as both payoff and tension escalation.

The art is the high point of the comic for me. The story takes place entirely in dark woods, and colorist Chris O’Halloran makes incredible use of about 3 different shades of purple and not much else. There’s excellent use of lighting, especially in the campfire scenes, where the strangely cold firelight plays across faces. When storyteller guy makes a punchable face, the eerie light makes it EMINENTLY punchable. Iaquinta has a knack for facial expressions in general. Everyone looks sort of permanently disgusted and afraid, suitable for a comic in which people who probably can’t stand each other are getting killed by shit-piss terrifying plaguedoctor frogmen. There ‘s also lots of little details to take in, like the shadows in the background of one panel that make it look like asshole story guy has devil horns.

IMG_20170728_001942
Picture taken in substandard lighting. Middle panel. Hopefully you can kinda see what I’m talking about.

Honestly my main issue with CROAK is the presentation. I really admire what Alterna is doing with their newsprint line from a ethical/moral/theoretical standpoint. I assume printing on the same kind of paper The Inquirer uses is part of what lets them sell their comics for $1.50. I’ve always had an issue with the seemingly bad cost:content ratio of floppy comics, so I dig that price point. I also have to admit that, since it was newspaper strips that got me into cartoons in the first place, newsprint feels nostalgic to the touch. Just touching the book is dope.

Unfortunately the newsprint makes all the art look kinda smeary and blurry. I think glossy pages and the crisper lines and color definition that comes with them would have worked better. The art style is pretty loose and smudgy as it is, with the difference between two shades of blue often seeming to replace line art. This works, because it’s hard to see in the dark, but it shouldn’t be this hard.

That”s a relatively minor complaint overall, though. If you like horror, especially of the classic ghost story, found footage, or creepypasta kinds, you’ll find something to enjoy here. It borrows bits here and there from a variety of influences, assembles them competently into something fairly fresh, and presents it all with fantastic art. If this sounds even a little intriguing to you, do yourself, and indie comics, a favor and buy the shit out of CROAK. Only good can come of supporting small publishers and creator-owned comics. Plus it’s just a good book.

Cover picture taken from http://www.alternacomics.com. The other one taken by me. Since I mentioned all the other contributors by name, I feel like I should say that lettering was done by Dezi Sienty. I could read it, so they get an A+ from me. I wish I had more to say about that.


 

I know I said I was going to try to lay off the drinking, and I sorta did. I drank a lot less than normal at least, but I couldn’t resist a sip of Midnight Moon strawberry moonshine. It goes down easy straight, but I mixed it with mango juice and got some dangerously chuggable shit. Good thing I only had one glass.

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