The Webcomic Overlook #225: Broodhollow
You can say many things about webcomic veteran Kris Straub. Maybe you can say that for some reason he has an almost pathological fear of nostrils. Or that he replace the first letter of his name to a “Ch” to avoid gender confusion. Or that his beard is weird. Like I said, many things.
One thing that you cannot say, though, is that he has no ideas. Kris Straub is the sort of man where any fool thought pops into his head, and he has to go and make a webcomic about it. A webcomic space opera? Sure. Done. Got it. A comic about a struggling band? On it, buddy. A suit made out of chainsaws?
When you think about it, by the way, chainsawsuit (reviewed here) provides the perfect outlet for an ideas man. A thought pops up, and a hastily drawn comic later — BAM!!! — it’s the latest hit on Reddit, garnering tens of upvotes. In one of the Webcomic Weekly podcasts, Straub marvels how the comic was sort of done as a lark, but it turned out to be the one picking up the most views. I suspect, more than anything, that the format fit him like a glove … much like blogging about webcomics, for me, has given me a wide-ranging platform for my racist polemics.
The latest joint by the bearded man with an aversion for the olfactory senses comes in the form of Broodhollow. This time, Straub invites you to enter his particular vision of horror! Only it’s set around the turn of the 20th Century. And it’s still nominally a comedy. And people still don’t have noses.
Seriously, noses are for ethnic people.
The story takes place sometime during the Prohibition Era. It was a far more innocent time where men wore suspenders and bowties unironically. We’re introduced to our hero of the story: a hapless, mild-mannered encyclopedia salesman named Noseless McGee. Wait… the character page says his name is “Wadsworth Zane.” That’s only slightly more dignified than the name I made up for him. OK, so when we meet up with Zane, he’s unloading his troubles to a psychiatrist. You could say he’s in-Zane in the membrane! I mean, I wouldn’t, because that would mean making a incredibly dated Cypress Hill reference.
So Zane is here because he’s got a tiny little problem: he sees ghosts. They’re everywhere. In alleys. In his bathroom. Probably on a DVD starring Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore. He’d never had this problem until he entered the town of Broodhollow. That should’ve been his first clue that things were going to be off-kilter, by the way. That this place was called “Broodhollow,” not “Sunshinetopia.”
Zane ends up in Broodhollow, though, due to a matter of inheritance. His great-uncle was the proprietor of a creepy antique shop. He’d passed away some time ago, and Zane was the inheritor of the estate. He’s here in Broodhollow until all the paperwork has been sorted out.
The denizens of Broodhollow have by and large been very nice and decent folk. Solid salt-of-the-earth types, you might say. There’s Iris, a helpful teenager who shows Zane around the old antique shop. There’s the Mayor, who’s absolutely ecstatic at the prospect of a new Broodhollow resident. There’s the Bottlefly Boys, strong men who can come to your aid in a pinch. About the only nasty person is the eeeevvvviiilllll real estate developer, who wants to buy up Zane’s property.
None of the townsfolk are very phased about the ghosts, either. At this point, I sorta expected this to be a story about how everyone accepts these ghosts like common everyday nuisances, like aphids or children. Zane would learn a long hard lesson and, in the end, he finds out that intolerance is the real monster.
But no. The reason that folks are phased is because they don’t see the ghosts. When Zane sees giant bat demons, eye witnesses confirm that they were just your regular garden variety bats. (Still, with four-foot wingspans, which is frankly a little freaky.) He begins to doubt his own sanity. Is he Haley Joel Osmenting, seeing things with a spectacular sixth sense? Or — to quote a group of street poets named after a geographical feature — is he, in fact, insane in the membrane?
So when the title is named after the place, you come to expect this to be one of those stories where “the city is the character.” How is this reflected in the comic? Well, Broodhollow is an eccentric little town that celebrates a lot of holidays. The first one that Zane experiences has to do with tuning forks. The townsfolk also get drunk on a non-alcoholic drink, which gets them around the legalities of Prohibition but still packs a mind-altering punch. The town’s quirks can get a little precious sometimes, but it does build a nice, off-kilter background on which to hang mysteries upon.
The town of Broodhollow gains a lot more personality than the Broodhollow residents themselves. Most come off as a little flat. A lot are quite one-dimensional. I suppose I should be giving this story some slack — it is the early goings and all — but many comics I’ve read that have established multi-dimensional side characters in the span of a few pages. While there are hints that there’s more to these characters than first meets the eye, the revelations feel a tad hamfisted at times.
As for our lead, Zane… he’s a little bland. There was nothing in his personality I could really latch to. I suppose he’s nebbish, and he’s got a bit of an OCD thing going (which I interpreted from his fiddling around with a mailbox door). He’s obsessed with finding patterns in things. I guess those traits are OK. Still, I’m never really curious, and neither do in really care, in seeing if Zane ever unravels the mystery.
The artwork has improved immensely since one of Straub’s earliest projects, Checkerboard Nightmare. The character designs are solid and distinct, with a confident cartoonishness. I talked about Carl Barks and the Uncle Scrooge comics last week, and Broodhollow reminds me a little of that. Simple designs to best convey expressions, while backgrounds are lovingly detailed.
The coloring adds a fantastic new dimension, too. As being a comic that’s part horror, the dark and moody colors add hints and teases of a world unknown. I like how the ghosts are rendered in a bright outline that you can imagine will blink out of existence the moment you turn your head. Straub’s visual storytelling is the strongest it’s been. You can interpret whole strips without the need for exposition or dialogue.
Which is why I was a little disappointed that Broodhollow is packed to the gills with long dialogue boxes. There’s so little revealed in these boxes that I have to conclude that Broodhollow would be a better comic if it wasn’t so wordy. The technique worked for F-Chords: those guys were struggling musicians, and I can see them yammering on just to stave off the fear of failure. But much of Broodhollow depends on the mood, and that gets stopped cold will all the frequent walls of text.
Broodhollow is an interesting experiment with some potential. A small part of me is a little interested in figuring out what’s going on — whether it’s all mental, or whether there be ghosts. However, the tonal shifts between comedy and horror isn’t always successful, and the characters cam be a little challenging to warm up to. The art is the best that Straub has ever done, but that’s not enough to keep my interested in the story.
Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)