DC/Wildstorm’s new horror title NORTH 40 is as modern a comic as I’ve ever seen–an interesting first issue kick-off, followed by two issues of glacial pacing and underdeveloped characters and situations.I’m sure that the undercooked aspects of NORTH 40 are intended to create a feeling of mystery and intrigue that keeps you reading on a monthly basis, but, after three issues, writer Aaron Williams doesn’t dispense enough good information to sustain interest, issue to issue. It’s got to be a tough balancing act. It’s obvious Williams is playing his cards close to his vest, but because of that, I pretty much have no idea what’s going on in a given issue. Assuming Williams has some clarity on the way past issue number three, this type of storytelling would work fine in the trade paperback format. He may be building up to something in the next three issues. In a monthly format however, it’s lousy.
NORTH 40 is the story of the residents of Lufton, a podunk pitstop along Interstate 40 North, in some unnamed desert state where two of the town’s more “different” kids (a fat guy in a Cthulhu shirt and a snarky goth chick) unleash some not-exactly-explained evil on the town by reading from what appears to be the Necronomicon. As a result, the town ends up cut-off from the rest of the world, and a good portion of its population transform into paranormally powered monsters. A couple of the central protagonists are completely unchanged, namely B-movie stock character Sherriff Morgan and the blandly good-natured teen Wyatt Hinkle, but their goal after three issues doesn’t seem to run much deeper than a middling desire to figure out what’s going on. Most of that investigative action takes a backseat to perfunctory character introductions and their displays of odd powers.
It’s part of a large problem with NORTH 40’s plotting. The ensemble cast is way too big for the first few issues. No character gets a chance to make an impression other than “good” or “bad”. Here’s a situation where the town goes to hell in the first issue, but two issues later, characters are still reacting like nothing has really happened. It’s treated so off-the-cuff, that I would almost say it’s part of some larger reveal, but the unchanged characters show as much concern over their demonic neighbors as they would a passing raincloud.
“Your town gets a case of the monsters…and you boost a dress shop,” jokes Amanda Walker after she walks through town for the first time since the mass transformation. She’s the “Buffy” of NORTH 40, a smart-mouthed Chosen One whose mysterious selection as the hero of Lufton seems to be the comic’s secondary mystery. There’s a lot revealed about NORTH 40 in that simple line of dialogue. “Gets a case of the monsters” is outright dismissive to the horrors at hand, lessening the power of the book’s Lovecraftian hook. It’s unbelievable that she would be more alarmed that someone looted a clothing store than she would be about the town being overrun by zombies and demons. It’s comic book-y, and in a bad way.
NORTH 40 does this way too much. A little bit of intrigue, a panel of two of something disturbing, followed by something that trivializes it. Williams overdoes the cornpone Southern-fried dialogue, underdevelops the characters, and outright dismisses their situation. His saving grace is that NORTH 40 is very weird (if you like ‘em weird), but I wish the execution matched the potential of the set-up.
He’s done a great service by artist Fiona Staples, and if any of NORTH 40 gets under your skin the way it should, she should get the lion’s share of the credit. It’s a nice-looking series with clear visual storytelling, and she’s particularly adept at making the many characters of Lufton look distinctive. When Williams allows her to ramp up the horror, she nails it every time. I had trouble remember plot details from issue to issue (almost page to page, to be honest), but Staples’ images stuck with me–a vampiric harpy, a zombie uprising, a woman with spikes shooting from her eyes, damned souls reaching up to a silhouetted figure in a rocking char as a barely perceptible image of some tentacled ancient evil looms in the sky. Fiona Staples is definitely a talent to watch.
I’m interested in finding out if NORTH 40 gets much better past these initial issues, but not interested enough to snag issue four for myself. There are too few pay-offs in the early individual issues to make me believe that NORTH 40 is ever going to get really great by the time it starts tying things up. It’s going somewhere, I can tell that much, but the first three issues lack focus. If Williams can figure out what characters he wants us to connect with the most, or prevent himself from marginalizing NORTH 40’s conflict, he might have a cult hit on his hands. I just don’t think the first three issues of NORTH 40 are going to make a strong enough impression with readers to allow him the chance to improve as he goes along. Visually, Staples sets it apart from other horror comics, but Williams has created a threadbare quilt of obvious influences (Lovecraft, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Heroes) that never pays off in a satisfying way.