Author: Matthew Smith
Illustrator: Melanie Florencio
Welcome back, kiddies, to a special Halloween version of the Webcomic Police. And what better than a trick and a treat. A trick because rather than a webcomic, we have an independent comic I bought from the author from a comic convention. A treat because it's a double comic, giving me two comics to review for the price of one. This week we'll be looking at The Curse of Stranglehold, a supposed homage to late-70's horror movies. Will it be a “gripping” full-”throttle” thriller? Or will the author and artist “choke” and not meet the expectations they set for themselves?
(Note: Because this is a published work that costs money to view, I'll try to keep the review as spoiler-free as possible.)
Four teenagers, Carlos, Monica, Kim, and Jeff go camping in Wenton Woods, with Carlos and Jeff hoping to seduce their girlfriends. Hoping to scare them into cuddling up to them, Jeff tells the group an urban legend about a teenager who took his girlfriend out to Wenton Woods while on a date and was beaten up and murdered by school bullies. Since then, anyone going out to the woods hears “Stranglehold,” the song that was playing on the car stereo the night the teenager was murdered, and then are strangled to death by the teenager's ghost. It turns out that the legend is true, and Monica and a local police officer investigate the story to uncover the real reason for the hauntings.
Despite being a homage to horror, the comic doesn't stay content in merely using the same tropes and stereotypes that are known in older horror films, such as the order in which characters are killed. Also, the characters show some awareness of the genre, which is reflected in the comic. It doesn't go to the point of a Scream-style meta narrative which rattles off rules of surviving in a horror movie or discussing horror movie trivia, but it's slight enough to make it feel more realistic. When Jeff tells the story and says that the woods are cursed, Monica replies “What the $#@! are we doing out here then?” After he tells the story, she then points out plot holes, such as what happened to the girl the teenager was dating or why the police never bothered investigating a string of murders happening in the same place. However, it turns out that these plot holes are foreshadowing the later investigation of “Stranglehold,” and what actually happened. While such a choice often leads to a painfully self-aware, snarky work that can't go five minutes without ridiculing its own internal logic (which makes you wonder why the author even included those cliches if they hate them so much) the comic wisely breaks convention to make the story better.
The only weakness to the story would have to be the characters. The characters in the story are stock characters you've likely seen before such as the obstructive sheriff, the sassy black woman, the horny teenager who wants to get laid, etc. Part of the reason could be that it is a one-off comic, so packing characterization in becomes difficult, especially once the bodies start piling up. It also leads to characters just doing things because the plot says so. Why does a deputy get involved in the case despite insisting every step of the way that it must be a bad prank? However, the dialogue does a good job of establishing these characters' personalities and unlikely pairings of characters to get some deeper characterization and seeing how they interact (like when a deputy is talking to Monica on the phone and makes a pop culture reference she doesn't get, showing the age and cultural gap between the two). Maybe if it were part of a longer work or expanded out, the comic would feel less plot-driven, but overall I'd say it does a good job of working within the length it was given.
(Note: Under Fair Use policy, I'm allowed to quote the work and put up scans of the illustrations as necessary for criticism. However, the more portions of the book I post, the less of a chance I can use Fair Use as a defense.)
The comic is done in black and white, likely sketched, inked, and colored completely digitally. Sadly, it is the weakest part of the comic, as the art is inconsistent, as if the artist hasn't figured out the style she wanted for the comic and kept changing every so often. For example, the same character is drawn four different ways in the same story. The first style has a rounded out face, and she's drawn in a sketchy style with little detail. The second way gives her a more angular face, gives her more detail including coloring her skin tone and using a halftone pattern for her hairband, the third way rounds out her face again, colors in her skin tone but uses less shading, and a fourth way (second panel) which is used for the last part of the book which uses bolder lines, a more shaped face, and a simple cel-shading style. Some of this could be chalked up to the illustrator improving as the comic goes on, the last page in particular has three of those styles on one page, showing the lack of consistency in the comic overall. The illustrator needs to pick just one of the styles, or at least two that aren't jarring together, and stick with it. Also, she needs some model sheets so the characters features are consistent.
The art could also use some cleaning up. There are areas that need to be fully colored in, there are sketchy lines that make the art look incomplete (The cover of all things is especially bad with this. The characters still have gestural lines still on them, the trees aren't filled in, and the smoke coming off the fire doesn't really look like smoke and not much like a face. If it weren't for the fact that the alternate covers weren't that good I would have said the author shouldn't have used it at all). There is some good work in the comic and every once and a while you get some fantastic illustrations, but the quality is all over the board and drags the work down.
The Curse of Stranglehold is a decent comic. The plot doesn't revel in the trappings of the horror genre, nor does it insist on nitpicking the leaps of logic it requires at every step of the way, instead striking a happy medium between the two to breathe new life into a somewhat familiar story. However, the art is inconsistent and sloppy, dragging down the overall quality of the work. If you like psychological horror and ghost stories, then you'd likely enjoy it.