Graphic novels are getting a pretty sweet slice of the multimedia pie these days. From adult fare like Game of Thrones and True Blood to cartoons like Adventure Time and My Little Pony, comic adaptations have been pretty successful at capturing the feelings that drew the original audience to a title. Can Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan’s The Strain work the same magic? Does horror translate to the comics page the same way it does to the original novels and television series?
Based on this first volume, there are no worries for those craving an unnerving, disturbing experience. The vampire outbreak at the core of the series is initially treated like an infection by the CDC, which follows protocols to contain what appears to be an unknown fatal disease. Incidents branch out from the beginning investigation and then divide into separate story paths that converge into a fuller understanding of the vampiric threat that has emerged in America. A couple of chapters depict what seem to be separate stages for how people are handling or encountering the beginning seeds of the vampire outbreak, only to become the newly tense setting for the scientists adventuring into the madness with only half a clue.
David Lapham does an excellent job of characterizing the protagonists before plunging them into horror. He adapts the blueprint of Del Toro and Hogan’s novel into several set pieces; all effective whether they take place in historic flashbacks, a pitch-black airplane interior, or ordinary suburban backyard. Of course, each atmosphere is rendered with equal skill by artist, Mike Huddleston, and colorist, Dan Jackson. Horror is one of the most difficult genres to render in comics, as tension is extremely easy to break compared to film and television with immersive soundtracks and motion-led reveals. In The Strain graphic novel, the vampires are portrayed in their pale, bloody terror without any goofiness or dramatic flair. Panels of harsh lighting or crowded mania quickly amp up the dread for what will happen next. The undead hordes are creepy but not invincible, a balancing act that Huddleston and Jackson navigate to give readers a quick, lethal bump in the night that is most dangerous for being poorly understood.
There are several threads of realism to the story, from the CDC and hospitals’ involvement in the outbreak to a pawnbroker’s back story rooted in World War II. The cast is almost entirely made up of adults, and they talk and swear like adults who are facing extreme situations. The cover art represents the core struggle of book one well — that of a scientist already overwhelmed by a superior, hungry force in the darkness. Whether humanity recognizes the threat surrounding it in time will determine its survival.
The Strain, vol. #1
by David Lapham
Art by Mike Huddleston, Dan Jackson
Dark Horse, 2012