We all need a little confidence boost from time to time. There are moments when we’re down on our luck and could use some support. When we get it, we feel energized, motivated, and, perhaps, loved. This support can come from anywhere; a friend, a partner, or, in Nora’s case, a service dog that is definitely a regular dog. A totally normal dog. Why are you looking at me like that?
Okay, you got me. If Afterschool #1 was just a heartwarming story about a girl and her dog, this review would only be a paragraph long. No, instead, Skybound’s first issue of their new teen horror anthology gives you parasite queens, Cronenberg-level visuals, and a digestible tale of believing in yourself with a twist.
Written by Justin Benson (Something in the Dirt, Archive 81) and Aaron Moorehead (Spring, Synchronic), “Spineless” tells the story of Nora, a teenage girl with anxiety who is struggling in school. She experiences issues making friends, is getting bad grades, and dissects a frog so badly it would make any butcher faint. Noticing her struggles, Nora’s parents adopt a service dog named Janie who, with her presence, turns Nora’s life around. She has confidence now, playing soccer and making friends, and getting good grades. However, not everything is normal with Janie, far from it. It turns out Janie has a dark secret, the kind that involves government agencies tracking her down. Will Nora and Janie be able to stay together without the agency ruining what they have? Only one way to find out.
The core plot is delightfully pulpy and feels like a story that could be a legitimate short movie before seeing a longer horror piece. The cinematic nature of this makes a lot of sense when you learn that Benson and Moorehead worked and continue to work in film and their roots show throughout the pages here.
That cinematic edge was also its detriment, however, as there were some moments in this book where it felt like dialogue and plot moments were rushed through and it made it seem like I skipped a page or two. I understand that ‘Spineless’ and the subsequent tales in this anthology will be short stories, but it feels like things could have been fleshed out and explained more, or at least introduced a bit more elegantly so it didn’t feel like I had something entirely new thrown at me without a solid amount of context. While this book wasn’t unreadable, I feel like some things could have been done to make the experience a bit easier for the reader.
Nora is a sympathetic protagonist; it was easy for me to feel for her and want to see her succeed. You learn early on that she wants to be a doctor and help people but is blocked by her own shortcomings, which makes her triumph all the more heartwarming. The book does a good job at showing some of her hobbies, working up the courage to enjoy soccer and partying with friends along with the solitude of video games. I was glad to see that we were able to have a relatively fleshed-out protagonist even though we were only with her for a short amount of time. Unfortunately, I can’t discuss Janie so much without going into spoilers, but all you need to know now is that she is a very, very good dog.
The art by Greg Hinkle (Radio Spaceman, Airboy), colors by Giovanna Niro (Two Moons, Summoner’s War), and a cover by Veronica Fish (Slam!, The Wendy Project) plays into the horror elements perfectly. Hinkle’s lines are harsh and scrawly and Niro’s color work is full of sickly yellows and muted blues, creating a world, not unlike our one but one that is largely supernatural. Even the students in the background are drawn with horror-like proportions like they are stuck in a zombie movie as if Nora is the only one in this story that isn’t gripped with a supernatural element. I have to give a major content warning for gore, animal harm, and body horror here, as I teased in the intro, the book is full of Cronenberg-level visuals of muscles and blood and viscera. The visuals make sense given the nature of the book and they are very striking, but if you are a bit gore-averse, be cautious and take care of yourself.
The lettering by Pat Brosseau (Drums of the Dead, The Chained Coffin) is also stellar, especially when there is dialogue for the evil, supernatural monsters, using almost bloody, claw-like text to describe their garbled, Eldridge horror way they probably sound if you heard them speak. From an accessibility standpoint, though, I wonder if that text choice might be difficult for others to read. Just because I had no issue reading doesn’t mean everyone will be able to. I also want to commend Andres Juarez (Oblivion Song, Kill the Minotaur) for the logo work, it looks like something ripped straight from a cheesy B-movie, the kind where a narrator says the name of the film creepily. You know the type. I’m also glad to see that Nora, who is Black, is drawn with textured hair and full lips, and a wide nose. I always love seeing that.
All in all, this first segment of Skybound’s anthology is chilling, cinematic, and very promising for what’s to come. Afterschool is markedly labeled as a “teen horror anthology,” so I am curious to see what else will be explored. Anxiety and confidence are at the forefront here in ‘Spineless,’ and there is a metric ton of things teens go through that can be discussed in fiction. If the storytelling and framing are anything like what we read in issue one, we can bet that what comes next will be scarily good.
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