American Nightmare: Smuttynose

Posted by on September 18th, 2010 at 5:35 AM

Rob reviews the first three issues of Bob Oxman’s Smuttynose, an account of a grisly murder spree in 1870s America.

Rick Geary hasn’t entirely cornered the market on depictions of famous murders in comics form.  The three issues to date of Smuttynose, by Box Oxman, are most notable for the way they convey an atmosphere of sheer dread.  The story is about a husband and wife who move from Norway to a small coastal island called Smuttynose in the USA, taken from a court transcript.  As such, it was ideal for a comics adaptation as the testimony of a survivor from the ordeal, Maren, proves to be a perfect first-person narrator.  She’s even able to flip back and forth in time, giving the reader a glimpse of the horror to come.  Like virtually everyone in the story, Maren is a bit of a prickly character, adding a certain weird tension to the proceedings.

As the wife of a man she didn’t particularly care for, in a country she had no desire to live in, she was less than thrilled when her husband brought home a man named Louis to work with him on his fishing vessel.  Louis was a supremely creepy character, and it’s hinted that he enjoyed killing pets for fun.  After he was finally thrown out of the house, Louis survived a shipwreck, came back to the cabin, and murdered Maren’s sister (whom she also did not care for) and sister-in-law (Oxman hints of an affair between the two).  At least, that’s how Maren tells the story; Oxman cuts to the trial itself, where Louis denies everything.

Oxman captures the loneliness and dread of living on a small island, the sense of lawlessness.  At the moment, his chops are not quite up to the task of telling the story properly.  His lettering is sloppy and there are a few egregious spelling errors.  The quality of his line varies widely from page to page; some look carefully rendered, while others look hastily assembled and whited out in spots.  He can’t quite seem to decide between using a simple & iconic character design and going a more naturalistic route; as a result, there’s a good bit of anatomical awkwardness and odd facial expressions.

That said, his sense of style and atmosphere are his strengths.  His use of blacks to create dread is impressive.  Little flourishes like a figure appearing in the reflection of the killer’s eyes add to that effect.  What Oxman needs most is clarity and greater simplicity.  It’s obvious that he’s not going to wow anyone with his draftsmanship; instead, he should play up his sense of design and composition.  Simplifying his line would make it less distracting, allowing the reader to fully soak in the atmosphere he has created.  There’s a flat grimness to this story that Oxman wisely chooses not to sensationalize. The way that Oxman deliberately chose not to depict the victims and their lives as sympathetic not only casts the final outcome in doubt, it creates a more interesting story.

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