Cartoonist: Joseph Schmalke
Publisher: Black Caravan (Scout Comics)
WHAT IS IT?
A supernatural viking murder mystery with a slight edge toward horror.
Think True Detective meets The Green Knight (2021)
WHAT'S IT ABOUT?
When several villagers turn up brutally dismembered in a small Viking village, the Jarl summons a skeptic from a distant community, Bjorn, to help solve the mystery. Suspecting a death witch on the outskirts of town, the Jarl asks Bjorn to kill the outcast and bring an end to the killings. Unconvinced, Bjorn studies the scene of the crime to look for clues and finds strange runes, marking the spot as some sort of ritual site.
Going against the wishes of the Jarl, Bjorn enlists the help of the witch to uncover the truth of the matter; however, he soon discovers that the truth is not so easily discovered, and the magic he's spent his life denying the existence of may have more sway here than he's prepared to accept.
Schmalke's work is stunningly professional for being produced by a single creator. Containing both the cohesion of a singular vision and the skill of a seasoned team, the comic is, if nothing else, easy on the eyes and a joy to read.
The art captures the rough-edged, frigid aesthetic of the Norse countryside and Viking culture with visceral efficiency. Skin is wrinkled and worn by the elements, hair is wiry and flails about completely unkempt, and backgrounds are roughly crosshatched so that even the air around the characters has a beaten-down quality to it.
Each page features a mostly monochromatic, highly stylized color palette that effectively sets the mood for each scene while also introducing visual cues for complex concepts in the story, like using hot pinks to highlight magical beings and events.
There's an organic use of lettering that integrates well with the art style. While there's nothing overtly flashy, everything blends together so well, it's easy to get swept up in the panels and not even notice that the lettering is there.
The comic doesn't feel the need to hold your hand through the cultural understandings of the Norse. Whether it's through context clues or trusting that the audience has had enough exposure through popular media to grasp these concepts, We Don't Kill Spiders moves past the need to explain every tiny cultural nuance and instead focuses on its higher level ideas and characters.
Revna, the witch, is a compelling character not because of her tragic backstory, but because of the agency and power she has over the village, her own life, and the story as a whole. It's nice to see this kind of character not reduced to her most base traits.
There's a good number of unexpected twists that the narrative takes, even in these first two issues. It's impossible to be bored reading this comic when it genuinely feels like anything could happen.
WHAT DOESN'T WORK?
The moment-to-moment writing and dialogue is a bit of a weak link in this solo creator's skillset. Much of Bjorn's dialogue is repeating what's already happened or stating the obvious, which drags down the reading experience.
There's a bit too much weight put on Bjorn's skepticism, specifically in the dialogue, that causes certain events in the comic to feel cheap. So much time is spent convincing us that Bjorn is different for being rational (in an anachronistic, modern sense) that there's not much weight when it turns out he's wrong and magic does exist in this village.
While much of the lettering is quite good, some of it feels out of place and obviously digital in a way detracts from the comic. There's also one instance where the FX lettering is then repeated in a speech bubble, which feels instinctively wrong.
WHY SHOULD I READ IT?
Teetering somewhere on the borders between horror, mystery, and action thriller, We Don't Kill Spiders is a wildly entertaining, solitary vision of magic, skepticism, and mob mentality that somehow feels right at home in 2022. There's a sense of looming dread as violent acts build up and lead to the next ones and the consequences sit cozily to the side, waiting to strike and bring ruin to everyone involved. With world-building as solid and detailed as its own art style, This is exactly the kind of comic that begs you to get lost in its pages for a few hours and forget about the world while you're there.
I don't think many people will walk away thinking of this comic as particularly revolutionary or mind-blowing, but We Don't Kill Spiders makes for excellent comfort food, and I can't blame anyone for wanting to stick with something simple and sound every now and then. There's still an incredible amount of artistry on display and anyone that picks up this comic is going to feel that they got their money's worth. If you like Viking stories, supernatural fantasies, or mysteries with a slight horror bent to them, you'll probably really dig We Don't Kill Spiders.
Unless you're arachnophobic, then stay far, far away!
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