Writer: Mark Russell
Artist: Benjamin Tiesma
Colorist: Vladimir Popov
Letterer: AndWorld Design
Publisher: Vault Comics
WHAT IS IT?
A quiet story about a quiet town with quiet citizens all looking forward to the latest releases coming to their local Redbox, their only real connection with the outside world that could hold greater mysteries inside its oddly-specific catalogue.
Think Twilight Zone meets the small town a few counties over you’d rather just drive on through.
WHAT’S IT ABOUT?
Deadbox is about a classical small town named Lost Turkey, a town so under-the-radar that even WiFi eludes the citizenry. The only thing that can keep our protagonist, Penny, from thinking about her dying father and her lost chance of escaping her suffocating, small-town home is a video rental box inside her family’s convenience store. But the quiet town finally begins to make noise when the films inside the titular deadbox begin to look strangely familiar.
Almost like the residents themselves are the stars.
Russell is no stranger to dialogue with a bit more weight behind it than your standard-fare comic magazine. Every line seems to carry pounds of purpose within without losing a naturalistic tone. It doesn’t feel like a line is wasted for the purposes of “realism.”
Tiesma has a great eye for emotive characters, specifically in regards to Penny, our protagonist. The pain in her eyes as she realizes she’s going to be stuck in this town forever despite her best efforts cuts to the quick and sells the slow, depressive, claustrophobic death that comes from never leaving the town you were born in.
Popov’s colors have an almost washed-out, sterile hue that is a welcome change to what we typically see from small-town Americana. It isn’t rosy, or nostalgic, or welcoming. It’s constructed, cold, and empty, begging you to keep driving. Don’t even stop for gas.
AndWorld does a fantastic job conveying the dichotomy of the town and its hidden self. Pose narration is mixed-case, almost seeming like it came from an old typewriter, dialogue is a full-case breeze to get lost in, and television narration is static, boxed, and cold.
The town of Lost Turkey feels lived-in and fleshed-out in a way that you could be forgiven if you thought it was just down the road. Main Street is empty outside of the few locals who refuse to die, the convenience store is cold and fluorescent, and everything but the citizens themselves is telling you that the town itself is dying the slow death of modernity.
Penny is a relatable protagonist, the perennial millennial who longs to leave her hometown, go to college, and make something of herself. It’s legitimately heartbreaking to see her have to sacrifice her future to stay behind and become just as stuck as everyone else in Lost Turkey.
One of the only splashes of red in this entire book is in the dense color of the deadbox itself. It really stands out on the page in contrast to the rest of the palette and seems to call out to red-flannelled Penny, demanding her attention.
It’s neat to have parallel stories going on throughout the book, one of Penny and her real-world struggles and those of the deadbox films. The film on display in this issue, “The Lonely Planet,” would make for a killer graphic novel on its own.
WHAT DOESN’T WORK?
The film narrative of “The Lonely Planet” eats up a good chunk of page real-estate and doesn’t seem to really earn its keep. It takes several pages to even set up the film’s plot, pages we could have used to get to know Penny better.
The film sections could have benefitted from a different color palette than the real-world settings. As it stands, they both look like they’re from the same world and don’t do enough to really differentiate themselves from one another. You’d be forgiven for thinking it was all the same setting upon a casual flip-through.
The central mystery of the deadbox is never addressed in this first issue despite it being the main draw of the book. The characters haven’t even begun to realize their connection to the films by the end of the issue and it leaves a sense of emptiness hanging over the plot.
Between the set-up of Penny in her small town with her sick father and the set-up of the film she watches, it’s hard to feel like anything of consequence has happened. It’s a lot of foundation, a bit of character building, and a splash of connective mystery that isn’t necessarily enough to warrant coming back for seconds.
The cliffhanger on the final page is weak. It tries to establish a connection between Penny’s father and the film he’s been watching, but it doesn’t do enough to really raise any sort of suspicions or promise more intrigue to come.
WHY SHOULD I READ IT?
Deadbox seems to be trying its best to talk about classical small-town Americana and its cancerous effects on modernity and our ability to move forward as a people. The trouble is that it doesn’t really know how it wants to go about it. The town of Lost Turkey seems full of potential and ripe for exploration, but the mystery of the deadbox doesn’t let it breathe enough to really get a chance to say anything interesting.
There’s a fantastic story here about Penny’s small town suffocating her dreams of leaving, going to college, having a life. She has to put all of that aside when her father becomes sick, refusing to leave him but broken by the fact that she was so close to getting out. And the townsfolk don’t make it any easier, constantly reminding her that college would’ve been a waste of time, that outside isn’t the answer. All she needs is here.
Small-town America is the perfect setting for a mystery like this, a reason The Twilight Zone seemed to have stories set there every other week. But the other-worldly shenanigans of the deadbox aren’t mixing well with Penny and her town. To explore one, we have to ignore the other, even though it seems like the entire point of the book is that they’re one and the same.
Maybe this is a classic case of story not matching medium. Maybe Deadbox would benefit from the tighter narrative focus that a full graphic novel or film provides. Maybe we need to understand that monthly narrative installments require a pacing and cadence that just doesn’t have the room for some stories to breathe properly.
None of this is to say that Deadbox doesn’t have potential. Hell, I’m intrigued to see if this ends up being a lost, classic episode of The Twilight Zone that we’ve been waiting sixty years to experience. But I think I’m going to wait to read about it once I have a collection in my hands.
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