Writer: by Robert Kirkman
Artist: Paul Azaceta
Release Date: January 28, 2015
The first volume of writer Robert Kirkman and artist Paul Azaceta’s horror comic, Outcast, opens with the powerful, palpable sense that something has gone terribly wrong. A concerned mother looks toward her son, who’s exhibiting some very unusual behavior. Though he faces away from both her and the reader, it’s clear from the mother’s strained face and dreary color palette that what he’s hiding won’t be pleasant. And it’s not: along with ample blood, gristle and self-cannibalization, the child still maintains the uncanny look of innocence, which is far more disturbing within this contrast. A local man of the cloth appears on the scene, and makes it clear that this grisly scenario is something he’s seen before. From this harrowing opening emerges a striking narrative about demonic possession, guilt and strained relationships, familial and otherwise.
Within the next six issues of this first volume, Kirkman and Azaceta slowly introduce their main characters: Kyle, a loner living in self-imposed isolation after committing an as-yet-unspecified act; and the aforementioned priest, Reverend Anderson, who’s made it his mission to investigate the subtle intrusion of demons into an idyllic small town. Kyle appears to harness an ability to harm and exorcise demons — though this skill’s origin remains a mystery. What transpires is a kind of low-key supernatural procedural, where Kyle’s tortured past looms large. A white-haired stranger also turns up in Anderson’s congregation, ramping up the menace through feigned sincerity and a mysterious sense of profound foreboding.
But the smaller, personal details behind Outcast truly flesh this story out: the banter between Kyle and his foster sister, Megan, who hopes to break his isolation, feels effortlessly natural, hitting just the right notes of familiarity and yearning. Reverend Anderson’s faith is balanced by his penchant for drunken card games and deceptive conversational candor. And while Megan’s husband Mark, a local cop, doesn’t receive much initial characterization, his explosive reaction upon encountering a stranger with a sordid connection to his wife speaks volumes about him within a handful of panels.
The use of violence here can be unsettling: Azaceta’s artwork coveys the danger and brutality of the possessed, flailing, kicking and sneering. At times, the linework evokes the small-town menace of David Lapham’s Stray Bullets characters, where an innocuous face often cloaks the worst of impulses. He renders the body language of these characters with pinpoint precision, whether they’re awkwardly interacting with family or attempting to understand the rules of the supernatural entities they’ve encountered.
Though this volume sets Kyle upon something of a heroic journey, it also leaves plenty of questions unanswered. What leaves people open to possession? And why does Kyle’s ability to “heal” those afflicted by demons look a lot like beating people senseless? Is Kirkman positing a fairly traditional notion of Satan and God mired in an eternal struggle, or are Kyle’s abilities to harm demons rooted in something else entirely? It’s also unclear whether these demonic infestations are confined to Kyle’s rural town, or whether they’re erupting all over the world. Mind you, all of these questions seem less like plot holes and more like issues to be addressed in future volumes. For all of the density this first arc packs, it’s also the first puzzle piece of an expansive saga; for now, it’s quietly gripping, illuminating the most intimate moments of an epic war.