‘The Fly: Outbreak’ oozes with atmospheric dread

(IDW Publishing)

Just in time for the Halloween season comes the trade paperback volume for Brandon Seifert and menton3’s The Fly: Outbreak from IDW Publishing.

I’m sure many horror fans will agree that David Cronenberg’s 1986 remake of the original classic with Jeff Goldblum is one of the greatest horror movies of all time and certainly one of the master of visceral body horror’s finest moments. 1989’s The Fly II was not nearly as terrific a film but it had its moments and benefited from the always soulful presence of actor Eric Stoltz.

The Fly: Outbreaks narrative begins sometime after the events of The Fly II, which is in some ways unfortunate given that the sequel was greatly inferior to the first movie, but it was also necessary in terms of continuity (as those who’ve seen both films would understand). It was either continue off of The Fly II or break off from the established narrative and start anew with new characters. While it’s easy to speculate what might have been the better choice, for better or worse the creators and IDW chose to continue off of The Fly II.

So is it scary? Well, not really, but “scary” isn’t really the appeal of the Fly franchise, at least not for veteran horror fans. “Creepy” would be the more accurate word and in terms of the creepy factor, The Fly: Outbreak outdoes The Fly II  largely, as I’ll be arguing in this review, thanks to artist menton3.

(IDW Publishing)

menton3’s detailed, lifelike art and writer Brandon Seifert’s decision to use the character of Martin Brundle, the son of Jeff Goldblum’s Seth Brundle, makes The Fly: Outbreak at times feel like The Fly III, the movie. I know, there is  no movie which is partly my point: the book, at least on the visual level, is a quasi-cinematic experience that, barring a Hollywood reboot, is probably as close to a direct sequel that we’ll get.

It’s not common to find comics in which you like the writing and the art equally, even in books that you may happen to love. For me, more often than not it happens that I like a comic’s story but am not too crazy about the art. The Fly: Outbreak, however, is the reverse instance: I wanted to read it primarily for the art. You see, to view a book by menton3 is to have a unique comic experience like no other comic by no other artist can provide. His art is exquisitely dark, brooding and gothic.

The Fly: Outbreak is no different: like the titular insectoid monsters and their bodily excretions, the art here practically drips and oozes with atmosphere. In an interview, menton3 has stated that much of his work is inspired by imagery and visions that he gets while in a hypnagogic state, and to me that explains a lot because staring at his art alone is enough to take you to a semi-hypnagogic state. In fact, The Fly: Outbreak is the rare book for which I actually recommend the e-comic over the paper version (I have both so I was able to compare). menton3 uses color, lighting and contrast to extraordinarily eerie, otherworldly effect and I find that this is enhanced when you view the e-comic version of Outbreak in bed with the lights out. When viewed this way, the panels practically pulse with a spectral glow. Don’t let your reading pace dictate the speed with which you make your way through the book. Rather, go slow and stare at the panels, letting the dreamy, nightmarish atmosphere soak into you.

(IDW Publishing)

The surreal beauty of menton3’s art is somewhat offset but a lack of kinetic flow between panels. Often, the illusion of dynamic motion that comics, especially superhero titles, typically strive to achieve isn’t there and you get the sense that you’re looking at a series of static paintings. However, I wouldn’t necessarily consider this a weakness when it comes to this title because it adds to that surreal dreaminess I’ve been talking about.

The gore factor in Outbreak is also surprisingly toned down considering that this is The Fly franchise we’re talking about. But, personally, if you ask me, kinetic action and gore are both things that are not lacking in today’s horror. What I do often find lacking are the kind of rich mood and atmosphere that classic works of horror like The Exorcist and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining adaptation excelled in. Therefore it’s a trade-off in The Fly: Outbreak that I’m happy to make.

Also, while I personally enjoyed menton3’s creature design here, it might become a point of contention among Fly fans.  Different characters become afflicted with the same infection but their physical transformations manifest differently. The grotesque monsters from The Fly and The Fly II are both given homage to, but other “flies” have a more antiseptic, alien-like look. I didn’t really have a problem with this but I point it out for those purists who might take their details of the Fly  mythos very seriously. I do have to say that when it comes to a certain character’s transformation, menton3 doesn’t adhere to any established canon but comes up with a design that is uniquely his own. And it is a triumph in visual malevolence that’s somehow horrific and sexy at the same time. Unfortunately, the character isn’t given enough time to spread its wings, so to speak, but it is beautiful nonetheless.

Moving on now to the writing. When the monthly issues of this comic were being released, a number of reviewers on the Web criticized the sex in it, which struck me as a bit odd because I honestly don’t see what the problem is. It’s not overly gratuitous, at least not any more than the sex scenes in the movies were, and given that hypersexuality is one of the early symptoms of being infected with the transgenic fly infection, it seems like a natural part of the story’s world. The few sexual moments between lead characters Martin Brundle and his now wife Beth also serve to show how physical intimacy is an important component of relationships and how, when it is impeded for medical reasons as it is here, it can become a source of strain between lovers.

(IDW Publishing)

Rather, if I were to complain about any element of The Fly: Outbreak it would be the somewhat clipped feel of the narrative at times and how in certain key moments, particularly the climax, events feel rushed. In the first few issues, the way writer Brandon Seifert spreads things out over successive days of the infected characters’ quarantine is a great idea, but some developments occur a bit too abruptly. On the same day, for instance, one character goes from placid and accepting of her situation to suddenly upset and accusatory. Her physical features also go from beautiful to grotesque on the same day. It was almost as if Seifert forgot to demarcate the passing of additional days in the script for these scenes.

And while I am not one who usually quibbles too much over plot holes (because if you try hard enough you can find plot holes in nearly any story), I did find a rather big logical oddity in one of the later issues. I won’t reveal what it is precisely, but it struck me as being used for convenience, to prevent the titular outbreak from leaving the quarantine setting and thus too big to be contained, so to speak, in a single volume. A Fly story on a more epic scale, albeit more difficult to do, is almost guaranteed to get fans excited whereas here some readers are bound to be a bit disappointed.

In any event, Outbreak is a welcome addition to this year’s output of horror titles, which always get a big spike during the Halloween season. Lots of gratuitous blood, gore and nudity will surely abound in other works, but if you want something that relies more on atmosphere and genuinely transports you to a place between waking and sleep, between dreams and nightmares, then go pick up The Fly: Outbreak.

About The Pop Mythologist

The Pop Mythologist
The Pop Mythologist is the founder and editor of PopMythology.com. He has been a staff writer for the nationally distributed magazine KoreAm , the online journal of pop culture criticism Pop Matters and has written freelance for various other publications and websites.

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