The trope of the fourth-wall-breaking character within the metatextual story has become increasingly popular across all manner of media in recent years. Just because it’s done repeatedly, though, doesn’t always mean it’s done right. All too often, the character appeal to the audience feels more like a predictable gimmick than the critical tool it can be when used effectively. Fearscape #1, however, handles the style with precision and inventiveness, finding quirky ways to keep the act from getting stale, playing into the uncertainty of its own character’s trustworthiness, and often turning what would be weaknesses into strengths through the power of building its own narrative context.
Fearscape is the tale of the improbably named Henry Henry, an egotistic, unrepentant liar and the principal narrator of the story. Henry is a translator and aspiring novelist who finds himself experiencing writer’s block and, in a moment of weakness, decides to steal a story belonging to his friend and benefactor, Arthur Proctor. As he takes the manuscript to his room with the intention to plagiarise it, a fortuitous meeting with a muse who mistakes him for Arthur leads him to the Fearscape, a realm of thoughts and fears materialised as a fantasy netherworld. Here, he hopes to tap into the well-spring of creativity as many writers have done before him and finally write his breakthrough novel.
Writing a character like Henry can be a tough balance. He is without a doubt despicable, with seemingly no awareness of his own shortcomings, as evidenced by his inner monologue. In fact, he loses control over his own story and is in a deep existential denial over his place in the world. In O’Sullivan’s hands, what could be an obnoxious and irredeemable character becomes something more engaging, someone we are intrigued to follow along with. Despite his attitude, Henry is a character clearly in crisis, and we find a bit of ourselves pitying him for it. This makes him unpredictable in much the same way as the narrator of Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground, which is high praise indeed. Creating such a character is no easy feat, and one not always successfully done, but Henry Henry is a promising testament to O’Sullivan’s skills.
O’Sullivan’s great strength is his ability to give you all the bang for your buck in a mere 20 pages. While the pacing sometimes suffers in his stories, no one can deny he can get the ball rolling and cover a lot of ground in a single chapter. This debut issue is expertly handled, as the team juggles a couple of key plot points, all while building a definite atmosphere. Without a doubt, the art team, consisting of Andrea Mutti & Vladimir Popov, had a massive hand in giving it the old-school gothic feel that it has. I instantly thought of classic horror in the vein of Mary Shelley or Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde.
The muted colors and backgrounds with jagged, foreboding branches and an eerie wind, implied by leaves hanging mid-air, build an effective mood of uncertainty and give the real world a presence that makes it seem as unforgiving as the Fearscape itself. There’s a loneliness and sense of danger to the streets that sets the scene even if there were no narration or dialogue to go with it.
I’ve reviewed Ryan O’Sullivan’s work before and quite enjoyed it. Though his other work is entertaining and should not be slighted, he has clearly grown more into his talents, and it is evident this is his most mature, well thought-out book to date. He brings in his signature tongue-in-cheek surrealism, takes it to the next level, and uses it to play with the reader’s expectations from the get-go. It evokes a struggle with the self, as reality constantly clashes with perception.
You’re constantly reminded not to trust Henry Henry and his discordant narration every time he comes across something he cannot understand. In that context, what risks being a weakness, namely the fourth-wall breaking egotist, transforms into a critical strength. The creative team have found a very strong set of themes and knows how to play with them, from examining the human ego to criticising the controlling nature of its protagonist using the technique of the unreliable narrator. It cuts deep into the wounds of its character and promises a difficult redemption for him. Similarly, the main character’s feverish train of thought has him going over the events and never quite finding the right words. He is constantly reinterpreting his memories and trying to convey how he feels, but giving up halfway through. Given the style of the book, this uncertainty feels right at home and lends the story a unique tone.
With a very Neil Gaiman-esque mythology, the Fearscape promises to dissect the very act of writing and the trials and tribulations of finding one’s own story. We see the cost of telling stories firsthand, with characters swallowed whole by their own myths. This chapter does what every debut issue should, leaving crumbs here and there with promises of what’s to come.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading O’Sullivan’s Fearscape #1, and look forward to the next issue when it hits the stores. The creative team have a gem of an idea on their hands, expertly handling the quirkiness and gravitas of the main themes and central character dynamics. This is one to look out for.