Maw appears to be a horror comic with roots in actual horror and trauma: the horror and trauma of sexual assault.
As such, it’s a book that runs the danger of walking a very, very fine line. It lives in a sphere of a very delicate subject, one that could be flooded with a whole sea of trigger warnings because that sphere is one in which, horrifyingly, an alarmingly large number of people also live.
The issue begins with two sisters in a cab, dropping a whole lot of one-liners with the cab driver concerning feminism — or, at least, an outdated form of spirituality-based feminism they are on their way to a retreat to engage in. It’s a deeply relatable tone — what person under the age of fifty doesn’t roll their eyes over the political foibles of previous generations? Because the rights and concerns of people are an ongoing, uphill battle, it’s hard to ignore the places that movements of yesterday fell short — not to say actually failed — in their causes.
Again, fine lines are being walked, but walked deftly: writer Jude Ellison S Doyle is, themself, a feminist writer who has written whole books critiquing pop culture and shoddy socio-political thinking. In these informed, thinking hands, the tongue-in-cheek eye-rolling is handled earnestly.
Just as the violence — which all happens off-panel, for those concerned — is handled earnestly, Marion, the doubtful sister, has experience with assault. In a flashback, the all-too-real concerns of a victim caught up in the medical and legal aftermath are presented clearly, woefully. It’s often a hopeless struggle in a rigged game, and the predators are often given the barest slap on the wrist while the victim is mockingly laid bare.
When assault again darkens the doorstep, Marion refuses to be wrung out by the crushing experience again. That lingering, dispirited emotional turmoil has left her unwilling to call the police or go to the hospital. This is, of course, not recommended.
If this all sounds a little too heavy and real for a Scary Funny Book, that’s because Doyle doesn’t quite tap into the supernatural horrors of the story in this first issue, preferring instead to ground us in the sad horrors of reality. The supernatural turns are implied — that ’70s spirituality of the retreat seems to have a darker, more violent center — but the inciting incident is made all the more emotional and the characters fleshed out more in their experiences than your average comic book horror.
While it’s a bit too early to tell (this is the first of five issues, after all), this heart-rending, front-heavy loading of the narrative seems like it will provide ballast to the assuredly spooky, violent action moving forward. The emotional stakes are incredibly high, which means that if the resulting chaos and eventual resolution are suitably matched the ending catharsis will be all the richer and affecting.
Al Kaplan, who provides our art, uses a whole other bag of tricks to supply the narrative with an unnerving aspect. Off-kilter angles are presented, the comic book equivalent of dutch angles and unnerving closeups. These are counterbalanced by interesting establishing shots from a distance — a tree, a bar, the ocean from a cave — that gives the book the pacing of an avant-garde cinematic tone-poem, establishing rich humanity and cold distance of atmosphere. This mirrors the tragic distance with which society views sex crime, a reality at once undeniably human and personal but clinically inhumane.
All this is to say that, while Maw does walk that fine line, dealing with the untouchable real-life dread of sexual assault, it does so unflinchingly and with purpose. One expects Doyle, with their firm pedigree as an extant voice in feminist thought, to be the person with the strongest standing to tell a story like this one; one also expects Kaplan’s visual close-ups and zoom-outs to capture a unique and off-balance reporting of events. This first issue seems to back up these expectations, harrowing and shaking without even approaching its major action. This is a book to be watched even if you wish to look away.
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