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As a lifelong Marvel/DC reader I seldom wander into the world of horror comics. I’ll follow a good author anywhere though, so this week I picked up BOOM! Studios’ The Unsound #1 by Cullen Bunn, with art from Jack T. Cole. I’m a fan of Bunn’s from his work in the Marvel mutant realm, mainly Magneto and Cable & X-Force. As a writer he always brings a degree of dark humor to his storytelling, so it’s interesting to experience this tonal shift.
The Unsound unfolds from the point of view of Ashli Granger. She’s a nurse starting a new job at St. Cascia, an insane asylum with more patients than staff, and more mysteries than both. The reader experiences this strange and haunting atmosphere alongside Ashli, so her fear is ours. With so many superhero titles on his plate, I’m glad Bunn gets to exercise his horror chops on this book. Let’s dig deeper into The Unsound‘s maiden voyage.
Creating an atmosphere is key in a horror tale, and Jack T. Cole succeeds in a big way. In every scene we get some distorted version of reality just close enough to be unsettling. A weird neighbor’s hoarder apartment, a commute populated with the ranting homeless and a man bearing strange jars of organs.
Once we get to the hospital, our main tones are sterile greys and blues. However, Cole does great work in populating its otherworldly patients and staff. Administrators oscillate between shadowy suited men to sneering faceless monsters. While main characters’ features remain clear, the surroundings have such a fluid quality that we’re left guessing what’s real or not – who’s sane and who isn’t.
To combat those previously mentioned sterile backgrounds, we get slashes of red at any mention or thought of blood. From her very first uneasy entrance to St. Cascia – where she finds a razor blade on the front desk – Ashli has an unease that only grows with each interaction. The last page acts, I presume, as a primer to the haunting imagery this series will soon deliver, when washing a cut turns into full-on hallucination. Or is it?! Probably, but you’ll have to pick up the next issue to find out.
Much of the mystery and atmosphere we get from the art in this book is more effective due to Cullen Bunn’s writing. While there will always be a need for bursts of exposition (the hard-nosed head nurse doesn’t have time for chit-chat, but loves to spout cryptic history about the hospital), Bunn always excels at knowing when to drop the dialogue to a minimum and let images work with the writing to paint the story.
Ashli’s bewilderment at some unexplained occurrences – an addict led away by suited men to an unmarked room, a patient who always wears a paper-plate mask – allows the reader to be just as confused without being lost. That’s a nice touch in a narrative setting that can easily become un-moored from reality.
This reads like a good psychological thriller largely because it takes a lot of cues from the genre. Patients who claim they’re not supposed to be there, the good-natured security guard, a yet to be seen mysterious head-doctor. But the impressive turn Bunn takes is to use what could be basic tropes and turn them into something new and chilling. As The Unsound continue to publish I’ll be eager to find out! Check yourself in to Downtown Comics for this and other great titles from BOOM! Studios. Stay weird fellow inmates!