Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman is taking his horror southern gothic supernatural, rather than zombie for this new series from Image. The Outcast is the story of Kyle Barnes, an isolated loner that lives in a tumbledown house on the edge of society. We discover early on that many people close to Kyle have been possessed by demons over the years- his mother, his wife (now ex) altering their behaviour and personality unrecognisably and placing themselves, Kyle and their families at huge risk.
The novel begins with a mother becoming speechless with horror at the sight of her son, growling, dripping blood; apparently demonic. She contacts the local religious shepherd Reverend Anderson who has become a bit of a dab hand at the old exorcisms- it seems there's a bit of an epidemic in West Virginia. Stumped by this particular case, he calls on the help of Kyle, who he spots out reluctantly grocery shopping with his sister. It seems that despite his low-profile, reclusive lifestyle, Kyle has a bit of a reputation for expertise with demonic possession. Plagued by literal and metaphorical demons all his life, Kyle joins the Reverend in his next round of exorcisms, revealing powers of demonic expulsion that the Reverend simply didn't believe possible. Kyle is reluctant at first, but realising that he can't ignore these tortured souls he concedes. Together they begin to rethink what they both know about demonic possession, demons and exorcisms and begin working together to see if they can understand anything definite about the phenomenon .
Firstly, I liked the inclusion of the backstory of Kyle- we're taken through moments in his childhood where he was beaten and abused by his possessed mother. These are pretty harrowing really, and it softens the reader towards the so far surly Kyle. Once I realised that these were in fact flashbacks, not new cases of 'possession of small boy', I thought it effectively answered some questions about why Kyle is the way that he is and it broke up the cycle of exorcism, moping at home, exorcism, pep talk from Reverend Anderson. I had to go back and re-read a few bits to make sure.
There's a lot of set up in this volume, and not much so far by way of pay-off. I understand that it's a first volume, but so far it's not really asking any questions that are interesting enough to keep the reader wriggling on the hook. The identity of the Fedora man seems quite obvious, but the reader is vaguely intrigued to see if their assumptions are correct, which is about the closest thing to an emerging subplot that this volume has offered. Even if our assumptions are correct, it's hard to tell what the implications on the story are going to be. The reason, motive, and source of the demons are unexplained so far, but I guess it's unreasonable to expect that at his stage. The readiness of people to accept the existence of demonic possession is unexplained too- nobody seems shocked to find out that demons exist, they just see odd behaviour and bam! Jump straight to demonic possession as an explanation. But then it seems odd that Kyle is socially shunned if possession is such a common ailment.
Whilst the jury is out to some extent on the plot and the characters, it's hard to deny the quality of the artwork. It looks brilliant and the pages are incredibly atmospheric, with its bruise-like palette of broody blues and purples and greys. I loved the long shots of the outside of Kyle's house, with the long, shadowy outline of Kyle moping on the front lawn at all hours. The book does an excellent job of creating a 'sense of place'- the reader understands the mood and the oppressive feel of the town almost automatically, so instant is the understanding of the images. The gloomy colour really works with the whole lurking-shadowy-demon theme and it gives the whole thing an under-lit early X files vibe. I loved the little boxes within the panels that just sneak in an extra, last minute detail- a gripping hand, a rolling eye, like a crash zoom on the page. I've not seen that before and that's really effective at showing the immediacy of the action.
I'm undecided as a whole. I'll give volume 2 a go to see where the story goes next, but at the moment I don't feel massively drawn into the plight of the characters or even to the mystery of the demons' interest in this place or its inhabitants. I hope it's a Sunnydale style Hellmouth, because that has got some serious full-page potential. I like the reverend's religious musings and sense that it might be building up into a bit of a crisis of faith, but it's too early to tell. I don't know if I was expecting it to be more Walking Dead or what, but I didn't find this as compelling as I expected- it sort of loses the momentum built up in the opening sections and runs out of steam a little bit.