Probably one of the most hyped up comic events of 2014 was the much ballyhooed launch of Robert Kirkman’s latest monthly title, Outcast, of which the first few issues all sold out massively and got multiple printings (issue #1 reaching a fifth printing).
For those who haven’t been able to pick up the individual issues due to all the repeated sell-outs, the compiled Outcast, Vol. 1: A Darkness Surrounds Him trade paperback offers a convenient way to catch up on this story, but the obvious questions of course are, “Does it live up to the hype? Is it as good as The Walking Dead comic?”
The answer to both questions is no. But in fairness the hype was a bit much and TWD does set the bar pretty damn high. It’s unfair to expect an artist to match or outdo himself with every work. The real question is, is Outcast worth buying/reading? And that answer depends on how much you like the horror genre, particularly the exorcism sub-genre, and on how big a fan you are of Kirkman.
Kyle Barnes is a deadbeat and a shut-in tormented by horrific events in his past. His house is a filthy mess of neglect and he’d probably never see the light of day if not for his sister who comes to take him out for some grocery shopping. During their outing, a local Christian minister, Reverend Anderson, a specialist in demonic possession, recognizes Kyle and approaches him to ask for help with a case, believing that Kyle has a special gift. The problem is that Kyle neither believes in demons and possession nor in the notion that he has some sort of “gift.” Driven by his own inner demons, however, he relents and lets the reverend take him to the house of an apparently possessed boy who’s unreal display of sinister strength convinces Kyle that something is going on, though not necessarily demonic possession.
As a writer becoming increasingly known for horror, Outcast is a sensible way for Kirkman to keep digging deeper into the genre and to build off his TWD credentials while still branching out somewhat. Another horror tale rooted in mass hysteria or an apocalyptic threat would have been too similar. Instead, here we are confined to a small town and the horror is mostly, thus far anyway, limited to people’s bedrooms. The only battles that take place are spiritual and psychological. The problem is that aside from a mysterious antagonist whose details have yet to be revealed, there’s not a whole lot that differentiates this (yet) from any number of other possession tales we’ve already seen or read except maybe in terms of Kyle’s mysterious ability which is intriguing but in itself not enough to carry the story.
What does manage to carry the story to a degree is the character of Reverend Anderson who is a fine case study of writing a character against type. He’s a small-town minister obviously modeled, on the surface, after Bible Belt members of the parish but he goes against expectation in a number of ways. When we first see him he’s smoking and playing poker with his buddies all night in a dark room. We think, oh, he’s one of those hypocritical religious leaders who secretly drink, smoke and f**k to their heart’s content but tell others not to. But he doesn’t tell others not to, nor does he keep his own vices a secret nor even considers them vices:
“People think [God’s] got time to watch each and everything we do. Like he really cares what we say and whether or not we’re really following his rules. It’s such bulls**t. He’s not marking down every impure thought or bad word. He doesn’t care if you look at your neighbor’s wife or drink on a Sunday or masturbate… He just wants us to be good and be good to each other. So really… masturbate all you want.”
He’s a fascinating character and, for me, made the volume worth reading.
The other outstanding element here is the art by Paul Azaceta and equally important coloring by Elizabeth Breitweiser which, in its use of soft pastels punctuated by bursts of color, again contrasts with TWD’s stark black-and-white and goes against genre expectation. The lighting is suitably dark and shady enough to conceal the emerging spiritual horrors but the colors serve to highlight the characters’ heightened or depressed emotional states whether it’s the claustrophobic misery of Kyle’s squalid living conditions or the shock of a mother finding her boy doing something monstrous. Particularly effective is the use of small sub-panels for subtle moments of a character remembering or noticing something. And the sly grin of a possessed child is the creepiest thing I’ve seen from 2014’s output of comics.
Pick Outcast up if you’re a fan of the possession genre or of Kirkman and Image Comics in general. It doesn’t touch greatness, at least not yet in Vol. 1, but it’s worthy enough of both names.