Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Webcomics to Print: Split Lip, Vol. 2

So there's that old yarn about the babysitter. You know the one. She's just put the kids to bed when she starts receiving unnerving phone calls -- heavy breathing, maybe a scratchy voice on the other end, maybe he tells her to check the children. The babysitter hangs up and tries to ignore the calls, but the caller becomes more and more persistent until fed up, she calls the operator to find out who keeps calling.

After a minute, the operator tells her to get out of the house as fast as she can. The calls are coming from inside the house.

Now, sure, there are versions of the story that extend beyond that. There are versions where the babysitter successfully fends off the stranger in the house. There are versions where it's just the children or their father playing a prank. There are versions where the stranger slaughters everyone in the house. But in my memory, the story ends right there, when the babysitter learns the disturbing truth about her evening.

Those are the sorts of stories that dominate the second volume of Sam Costello's horror anthology Split Lip -- stories that end at the moment of the terrible revelation. A knife flashes, a monster is pulled from the shadows, and the story ends. These are atmospheric tales rather than narrative ones, stories made to unsettle and chill.

For those unfamiliar with Split Lip, Costello writes all of the stories, then has a different cartoonist illustrate each one. This allows him to match different scripts with radically different art styles. The Lovecraft-inspired "On the Plateau" looks like a pulp, while tenement terror "The Harvestmen" is appropriately sketchy and grim. Costello has a real knack for matching artists with his tales, and in Volume Two, they're especially up to the task.

Although the art here is strong, the stories don't quite hold up to Split Lip, Volume One. Volume One had the brilliant look left, throw right "Straw Men," the chillingly lovely "Mujer," the simple but effective "Headin' South." There are a couple of gems in Volume Two, notably "Face Blind" -- perhaps Costello's most visually striking piece -- and "Bad Radio," whose scary-because-it-could-be-true plot finds its perfect mate in Nelson Evergreen's realistic watercolors. But the longer, more narrative pieces, like Paris-based mystical mystery "Se Perdre" and Rapture-themed "Ashes to Ashes," are short on texture, and ultimately forgettable against the shorter stories. But overall, it's pure Split Lip spirit: a neat mix of horror subgenres that borrows from the classics while coming up with plenty of ideas of its own.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that there's a blurb written by me on the back cover. It's from a piece on horror webcomics I wrote a while back, and it's a mostly descriptive line. For the record, Costello never asked me to endorse Split Lip (I'm told courtesy is to ask permission to include use a blurb, but I can't say I minded), he only requested my (impartial) review.

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