Cover Art and Book Design: Lisa Vega
Publisher: Henry Holt And Co. (@HenryHolt)
WHAT IS IT?
Blackwater is a coming-of-age, YA webcomic turned graphic novel featuring hauntings, curses, queer romance and a lot of high school drama as two teen boys search for the truth about their haunted town.
Think Riverdale meets Teen Wolf.
WHAT’S IT ABOUT?
Blackwater, Maine is a horribly haunted place that just so happens to be the home of vastly different teen boys named Tony Price and Eli Hirsch. Tony is a popular track star and part-time delinquent desperate for his father's attention. Eli is a quiet boy suffering from autoimmune issues, a lack of a social life, and the presence of persistent ghosts. Somehow, despite all odds, these two strike up an unlikely friendship that starts to stir up feelings in Tony that are new and a bit scary.
Their burgeoning friendship is overshadowed by whispers of dark creatures in the woods and an irritating ghost that won’t leave poor Eli alone. With heavy high school and family drama, unsavory bullies, and curses threatening to rip the boys apart, can they push through the heartache to figure out what lies in the darkness of Blackwater?
Arroyo and Graham alternate chapters throughout the story and it is done seamlessly. The consistency of the art and tone throughout makes for a cohesive comic, but their own personal styles shine through in the character designs.
Vega’s cover design is stunning. The cool colors, shadowed beasts, heavy foliage and subtle nod to the romance that awaits within all help draw potential readers in and looks amazing on a bookshelf. The overall design of the book is quite beautiful, too.
The black and white artwork enhances the eeriness of the overarching narrative of Blackwater. It adds a layer of ambiance to the narrative and a beautiful simplicity to the panels that allows the major moments to really pop off of the page.
The story is as touching as it is creepy and humorous. Despite the werewolf curses and ghosts, the human aspect is the true star of the narrative. Refusing to shy away from the harsh realities of high school life and tackling heavy emotional topics head-on, Arroyo and Graham have crafted the cast of Blackwater in a way that makes them immensely relatable, allowing readers to have an empathetic connection to the story despite the fictional elements.
The sound effects and lettering are all legible and the font choices match the overall aesthetic of the series perfectly. The sound effects range from soft whispers to loud roars that are all clear in their intentions and easily relay the emotions with fervor.
With black and white artwork, it can be hard to make sure the wispy, translucent designs of spectral form don’t end up lost against the shades and small details in the panels. Both Arroyo and Graham ensured those details were handled properly and the ghostly aspects are a highlight of the book.
The diverse representation in the story is praiseworthy. Characters of varying ethnicities, sexual orientations, and body types are prominently featured, and Eli’s struggle with his autoimmune disease is both honest and sorely needed.
The queer representation is executed well and deserves a special note. The romance takes time to build and does so slowly over the course of time. While a prominent piece of the story, their queerness never becomes the only defining factor. The sensitive subjects are handled with great care and the younger audience it was written for may find comfort in seeing journeys similar to their own represented so kindly.
The supporting cast is well-fleshed-out and give an honest portrayal of how relationships change during the process of growing up. The care put into the minor cast is on par with the protagonists and it definitely shows.
Setting the story in Maine brings up instant thoughts of Stephen King, and Blackwater channels the horror-heavy aesthetics one comes to expect from similar small-town settings. The forests and cabins used throughout amp up the narrative tension.
WHAT DOESN’T WORK?
CW: Scary imagery, intense werewolf transformation scenes, strong language, several extensive scenes of bullying, heavy emotional themes (including parental neglect), a brief mention of drug usage and smoking, several illustrations of dead animals, one including a graphic depiction of viscera, wanton use of guns by hunters. Though this title is considered YA, it is a horror story and should be treated as such.
The story does suffer from some pacing issues. Several plot points feel like they wrap up mere pages after they are introduced, things jump around quite a bit, and narrative pieces often feel rushed in places that could have used some extra time to be fleshed out.
One of the pacing issues stems from the extreme emotional highs and lows of the cast. Though it does accurately portray the intense rollercoaster that is being a teenager (not helped by the prospective fear of turning into a werewolf), some of the switches feel abrupt and can be jarring.
A few plot devices feel too convenient and, ultimately, unrewarding (for example, when a random man just happens to have a photo of another man they’re looking for on his person, even though said man died years ago.) Though it is a YA story, moments like this feel as if they are robbing readers of a grander mystery to simplify it for a younger audience. Perhaps this is more of a personal opinion as an adult, but I believe teens deserve a bit of complexity in their stories that seems to be missing in segments of Blackwater.
Though it is marketed as “Riverdale meets Stranger Things,” there are little to no themes or aesthetics reminiscent of Stranger Things present in Blackwater. It would be more appropriate to use titles like Teen Wolf, Life is Strange, or Scooby-Doo: Mystery Inc.
WHY SHOULD I READ IT?
Blackwater is a fun, beautifully illustrated black-and-white graphic novel about the struggles of teenage life in the midst of a town saturated with the supernatural. How could you not run out to buy this title after hearing that?
Rife with horror elements, coming-of-age themes, and queer romance, this hefty and bingeworthy graphic novel is a great gateway to horror for younger readers. It can help get them excited about stories with monsters, supernatural elements, and romance in an age-appropriate way that still delivers the intensity the genre is known for. Even older readers will find this touching and spooky story enjoyable, making it a highly approachable title.
Previously released as a webcomic on Tumblr that wrapped in December of 2021, Blackwater made the transition to print with a beautiful edition that both long-time fans and newcomers will love. A stunning 301-page debut graphic novel, Arroyo and Graham have created a queer horror story with a lot of heart. Fans of Scooby-Doo, Heartstopper, and low-key horror will fall in love with Blackwater.
HOW DO I READ IT?
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