So far while writing columns on comic books and my love (and occasional critiques) for them, I’ve mostly focused on series published by Marvel Comics. Upon looking at the list of what comic books I read every month, this fact is unsurprising. Nearly two thirds of the series I keep up with on a regular basis are published by Marvel. As a kid, when I first got into comics, my initial gateway series was the X-Men. Other major early favorites were Deadpool and the Avengers, both also Marvel series. Years later, my nostalgic love for those characters has colored my preferences in what I like to read and what characters I most care for.
But, as with other aspects of my life, I am trying to diversify my reading. I’m a writer myself, after all, and I don’t believe that any artist can hope to remain interesting for long if they only consult the same couple of references throughout their entire career. I would prefer to take the time to read and encounter things beyond my mainstays, my old familiars. For that reason I’m going to try and balance out my inevitably numerous Marvel-focused columns with columns talking about the work done by talented creators at other comic book companies like DC or Image.
Or, in this week’s case, BOOM! Studios, publisher of The Woods. The Woods is an ongoing series about a group of high school students struggling with a horrifying new reality as their entire school is inexplicably transported to an alien world the likes of which humanity has never seen. Within minutes of arriving in the new world, the school finds itself under attack by alien creatures. Casualties come quickly, and with them, panic. Different characters argue over what the best approach is for ensuring the stranded students and teachers’ survival. Ultimately, a group of students venture out into the deep woods surrounding their transported school. Along the way they encounter deadly alien fauna, mysterious obsidian stone formations which omit a neon green glow (as well as voices into people’s minds), and one adorable yet creepy (adoracreepy) creature who follows them around like a pet. The series also features less alien concepts, like heartbreak, confusion, unrequited love, jealousy, and more. It’s a comic book about teenagers, after all.
It’s also one of my favorite series at the moment. Mind you, I am not caught up to the series’ latest issue. I’m actually only ten issues into the series, which is approaching its thirtieth. I bought the trade paperback containing the comic’s first four issues after seeing the series on a list of ongoing comic books featuring prominent LGBT characters. Such lists have led me to read a variety of series by lesser-known publishing companies over the last several months. These series have included the likes of Trees and The Surface, and while I enjoyed those comics, they haven’t captured my attention and instilled in me a need to keep reading as much as The Woods has.
A large part of the series’ appeal comes from its art direction. The illustrator, Michael Dialynas, is fantastic, especially when it comes to emotive facial expressions and bizarre, horrifying, and even endearing alien life forms. Josan Gonzalez, the series’ colorist, further elevates the material with his choices in color palette. The constant threat of death and struggle for survival permeate throughout the series, and there’s definitely a dark element to the series’ aesthetic. With that said, the art direction does not go too dark to the point of becoming one-note and boring, or too emotionally draining to read through for long. Gonzalez matches the dark hues of his work with lush purples, bright neon lights, and enough color as to ward off the danger of rendering an alien world solely in one-note darkness. Rather, we as readers get to experience the world of The Woods in its full alien color scheme, to include the bright neon that ultimately provides relief from and elevation of the horror aspects of the rest of the artwork.
Now on to the writing: James Tynion IV is quickly becoming one of my favorite current comic book scribes. I’m ten issues in and there are major characters who I don’t know whether to call heroes or villains. Their journeys for the rest of the series are not obvious, and while I have my suspicions about upcoming events in the book, I feel faithful (and thankful) that not all of my expectations will come true. When executed well, I like surprises, and The Woods executes just about everything well. It took me a couple of issues before I felt absolutely hooked, but now that the series has grabbed me, it has yet to let go. Tynion’s teenage protagonists are just that: teenagers. They are not adults in teenage bodies, nor portrayals of young adults as having only children’s intelligence or capability. Their angst is not stereotypical or mocked, and they each have unique personalities. Not only that, but none of their personalities are mere undeveloped archetypes. They are fleshed out realistic characters who can’t be well summed up by single words or phrases (i.e. the rival, the shy one, etc.).
My two favorite characters in the series so far are Isaac Andrews and Benjamin Stone. My impression from the first ten issues is that both characters are gay. I say my impression because, being not caught up, I don’t want to state something false just to find out later that I’m wrong. With that said, both of the young men have so far only been shown having romantic interest in other men. Specifically, Benjamin has feelings for Isaac, while Isaac has feelings for Adrian Roth, a straight member of the cast who lies at the center of much of the plot so far. The further into The Woods I get, the more Adrian seems to be dangerous, self-obsessed, and unconcerned with the feelings or lives of others, to include Isaac, who had considered Adrian his best friend while the characters were still back home on Earth.
Where Adrian is cold and calculated, Isaac is sensitive and passionate. Reading issues with major focus on Isaac, I see the anxiety and unrequited love that defined my young gay adulthood. Isaac, like myself, does not handle the stresses perfectly. He at time lashes out angrily upon people who don’t deserve the brunt of his frustration, but he also apologizes and acknowledges when he has done wrong. Benjamin, the other major (probably) gay character tries to be there for his friends and to treat people properly while still fitting into his father’s expectations for him. In one issue’s series of flashbacks, he is seen asking one of his female friends to pretend to be his date for the sake of deceiving his father. Benjamin’s flashback scenes with his father depict a type of homophobia that is different from the often used sheer violent rage type of hatred. They show an example of anti-gay prejudice that is less simple, and a father’s wishes for his son to be straight, even as he accepts others who are not.
The Woods takes an approach to sci-fi horror-esque writing that I adore: the portrayal of believable emotional angst and character development, interwoven amongst the fantastical and supernatural. As the characters attempt to make their way back home to safety, they remember the most dangerous aspects of where they came from. If you’re looking for an emotional gut-punch mixed with fun creature designs and lots of neon (a mix that I certainly find appealing), check out The Woods. You’ll be glad you did.
Eric Cline is a gay poet, 2016 Best of the Net nominee, and the founding editor-in-chief of Calamus Journal. His debut chapbook, “his strange boy eve”, was published by Yellow Chair Press in September 2016. He tweets @ericclinepoet.