Saturday, July 16, 2011

Review: Echoes

With the Echoes hardcover debuting this week at San Diego Comic-Con, it seems like a good time to post my review of Josh Fialkov and Rahsan Ekedal's dark, horror-tinged thriller.

Film has long been the province for dark psychological thrillers, from Alfred Hitchcock's original classic, Psycho, to more recent fare, such as David Fincher's sublimely disturbing Se7en. And while there have been countless movies of equal or, as is more often the case, lesser quality than these, there is one realm where genuinely creepy thrillers are much less prominent: comic books.

Sure, there are horror comics full of grisly, blood-soaked death, much like the Saw and Final Destination series of movies, in which each iteration attempts to top the previous entry's imaginative killings, but these are generally death for death's sake. Murder as entertainment. Empty calories of the macabre. But far less often is there a comic book that so grips your psyche, so wreaks havoc on your sense of what's real and what's hallucination, and shakes to the core the very idea of narration that it keeps you awake at night with the lights on, unable to free yourself from the darkness you just ingested.

The bleakly addictive Echoes, masterfully crafted by writer Josh Fialkov and artist Rahsan Ekedal, is just such a comic book.

Echoes chronicles the tragic, downward spiral of Brian Cohn, husband and father-to-be, whose own father is a dying old man, a schizophrenic, who, lying in his hospital bed and wracked with Alzheimer's, seemingly confesses to being a monstrous child murderer.

Before he dies, in an apparent moment of lucidity, Brian's father desperately tells him about the box, and about the dead girls, "so many dead girls." He pleads with Brian to find the box and tells him the address, tells him the box is in the crawlspace under the house.

Understandably freaked out, Brian goes to the address his father told him. He tries to reassure himself that his father was just talking crazy, that it was the Alzheimer's or maybe his father didn't even really say any of those things. Maybe it was all in Brian's head.

You see, Brian is a diagnosed schizophrenic like his father, which immediately calls into suspicion everything we see through his eyes and hear through his ears. The conceit of an unreliable narrator has been done before, of course, but rarely has it been handled as deftly as it is here. Fialkov definitely did his homework, researching schizophrenia, its effects and its treatments in order to convey the disorder with both realism and honesty.

It must be a terrible thing, to be unable to trust the voices inside your head, to be constantly questioning the world around you, unable to differentiate between what's real and what's a chemical imbalance in your brain. Brian is constantly second-guessing himself, even when he takes his meds. He's recently been undergoing treatment in a hospital and he can't escape the fear that he'll be sent back unless he acts "normal." This is why he has to investigate his father's deathbed ramblings himself, instead of going to the police. If it turns out not to be true, that Brian simply imagined the whole thing, maybe they'll lock him away again.

What Brian finds in the crawlspace, unfortunately, is all too real.

Or is it?

That's the real beauty of Echoes. Because of Brian's disorder, it's difficult to know what's real and what he's imagining. There are moments throughout the book when you might think the whole thing is one big hallucination, that Brian is strapped to a bed in a psych ward, doped to his eyeballs. But Fialkov doesn't stoop to such a cliched, cop out plot twist.

In the crawlspace, under the house, right where his father told him it would be, Brian finds a box. And inside the box is proof that his father was telling the truth, that Brian wasn't imagining it.

And that's when Brian's life begins to fall apart.

Even during Brian's slow descent into madness, as he fights to keep the schizophrenia from overwhelming him, it doesn't come off as exploitative or cliched. Even as we start to think maybe, just maybe, Brian really is a serial kiddie killer, carrying on his demented father's work, we still feel sorry for him. To elicit sympathy for a man who may be a monster is difficult to pull off, but Fialkov manages it with ease.

Fialkov's work is heavily influenced by the noir style of storytelling, with a doomed protagonist unable to free himself from the web he finds himself caught up in, a web largely of his own making. Truly, the only thing Echoes is missing from the noir playbook is the femme fatale, the dangerous, seductive woman of mystery who lures our hero into a deadly situation. Brian is a happily married man, after all, whose caring, pregnant wife wants nothing more than for Brian to get well, take his pills and return to work so he can provide for his family.

Brian's schizophrenia, however, has other plans for him. Indeed, it is the schizophrenia that fulfills the role of femme fatale, whispering sweet nothings in Brian's ear, driving him to delve deeper into the mystery, making him question himself and, ultimately, destroying him.

Josh Fialkov's twisted tale is only half of what makes Echoes so effective. Without the haunting artwork of collaborator Rahsan Ekedal, the book wouldn't be nearly as effective.

Ekedal's art has a delicate, almost ethereal quality to it, as if Brian's world might crack and crumble to dust around him. Echoes is penciled in black and white, with a minimum of inking, more gray tones than black, which only adds to the ephemeral, ghostlike feeling that permeates the story. The uncertainty of Brian's world is beautifully rendered by Ekedal's light touch.

You can see the desperation in Brian's father's eyes as he pleads with his son to go to the house. The fear is etched on Brian's face as he clambers into the crawlspace, terrified of what he might find. And when Brian discovers a pile of old porn magazines, and thinks that they are what his father was talking about, his relief is palpable as he laughs and laughs, long and loud, sloughing off the fear like a second skin. Until the image shifts and pulls back and we see the bones piled high all around him, the dead girls his father told him about. And in an instant, Ekedal returns us to the foreboding horror we felt just a few panels earlier.

Echoes is a wonderful, must-read example of psychological horror done right, in any medium. Its slow burn of a mystery will keep you guessing 'til the very end, as you question Brian Cohn sanity right beside him, as he tries desperately to retain his already tenuous grasp on his splintering reality.

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