Hello everyone. Elias here. We arrived at 201. Phew! The 200m mountain seemed big and tall, but we reached the top, only to notice that there are many, many taller ones to climb. So join us as we begin our new journey with webcomics. We’re reducing the amount we review each week to one, to give our reviewers a little break, but that just means we have more room to dig a little deeper and read a little closer.
Kicking things off is a revisit to a comic we reviewed not too long ago: “Counting Sheep.” Did it last in the months that followed? Read on, fellow webcomics travellers, to find out all that and more in this issue of The Webcomics Weekly.
Written and illustrated by A.Rasen
Coloring assisted by Isabella Caliarte
Edited by aul & Jun Alakotia
Reviewed by Michael Mazzzacane
Surprisingly, I haven’t watched many horror tapes for this column. Horror comics aren’t normally my jam, but there’s something potentially interesting experience-wise about this format. Despite being an uber connecting device, the smartphone has always been theorized as an isolating user experience. This sense of isolation is potentially a useful environment in which to read a horror story. After reading all 14 chapters of “Counting Sheep” the potential is still there, this tape just isn’t that scary and ultimately repetitive in how it implements fears. This sense of repetition further highlights what feels like a few plot jumps and character dynamics that don’t quite come together.
“Counting Sheep” takes place in a nondescript small town, if the unnamed town of Se7fr Where Seen had a suburb that would be it, where nightmares slowly take over. A nightmarish virus is slowly infecting the township and it might have something to do with rumors of a previously defeated cult, a decapitated god and the remains of that random castle on the hill. As the nightmares grow, a trio of friends begin to unravel the intertwining mystery and try to get a good night’s sleep.
As a horror story, “Counting Sheep” is a solid read. Creator A.Rasen locates horror in the unresolved issues of everyday existence. When the series opens, Caleb deals with depression and feelings of guilt over the accidental death of his younger sister, on his watch. The horror, however, comes from the unresolved and dissatisfied communication with his parents who silently overload and guilt him as they deal with their own depression issues. Her partner, David, is working class and dealing with a terminally ill parent. And Pao is neglected by her mother and constantly alone in a big house, although she is economically the safest, she is also the loneliest. This creeping terror is a strong and effective source of horror for the nightmarish logic the strip employs.
The problem is that all of this is understandable through the prism of psychoanalysis, class, etc. None of this is inherently “scary”, it’s just waking life in 2022. In order to draw out the horrifying potential of these unresolved issues, “Counting Sheep” frequently focuses on the subconscious dream world of its cast. in a more direct way instead of the wry dream logic of saying Nightmare on Elm Street. A.Resen’s line art and figures are solid overall and the monstrous elements of these strips are technically well done. In particular, episodes 6 and 9 feature morphing transformations that follow as should be scary. They just aren’t because the creator redundantly uses the same mechanics to shock and fret the reader via jump alerts over and over again. End the first strip on a jump scare when the final panel is the right choice. Ending the second on the same premise wasn’t a bad choice, it fit the strip’s narrative. And then they did it for the third, and again and again. While the dreams eventually grow longer as the tape progresses, A.Resen’s repetitive use of creepy leaps as the avenue to the horrible quickly loses its effectiveness.
The transition to dream logic in Episode 6 is obvious, but what makes this one of the few effective scary moments in all 15 strips is how delayed the shift to horror is. And this transition is not a sudden fear, but the slow transformation into an earwax monster. I can understand the techniques and mechanics employed in this tape, but they don’t move me or scare me. As narrative units, these longer dream sequences are well done. Caleb’s first dream of the lake and the human buoy is an effective juxtaposition of the natural and the supernatural. The long poles of the underwater human buoy correspond to the vertical orientation of the strip. Dave’s monstrous dream about the Father who won’t let him go and he himself can’t leave is an effective pursuit. None of them read like that scary.
That sense of technical appreciation and distance carries over to the main cast as well. A.Resen’s expression work is subtle and effective, these look like complex characters feeling a push and pull of emotions. These reactions are often juxtaposed to the dead adults face in their lifetime. The dialogue, however, often reads as a bit tinny and tone-deaf. The way exposure is handled in this band isn’t the best, but it’s serviceable. What comes after exposure is where it starts to run into friction.
There are conversations between Caleb, David, and Pao, which don’t read like friends would interact; they are all too aware of the “right” way to put things and understand what the other is going through…and yet they are unable to actualize that verbal understanding. Much like the horror elements, there is a disconnect between the pictorial element of the strip and the verbal. The interpersonal dynamics aren’t all bad, and their figure work does a good job of creating interiority for these characters even if the script reads a little robotically.
The potential for phones to be an effective and affective delivery for horror comics is still there. “Counting sheep is simply not the best example of this potential. Awkward moments aside, this is a solid horror tape, especially for those with a low tolerance for fear. The characters seem interesting even if they are not always the most interesting.