In 1891 a mine collapsed into itself. What was the dark substance found 666 feet underground? Blending modern horror, historical fact and Western lore, Scott Snyder and Dan Panosian have created a uniquely terrifying thriller with Canary. During the final days of the Gold Rush, one mining company in Colorado, pulled up radioactive Uranium, and then the mine then collapsed in on itself. Legends sprung up about the mine being cursed or even haunted. Now the Frontier is closed, the gold and silver mines have dried up. The country is becoming "civilized," and yet, in one stretch of the Rocky Mountains, a terrifying, new kind of violence is suddenly emerging. Random killings. People going mad and murdering neighbors, classmates without real cause. When a schoolboy kills his teacher with a hatchet, a famous federal marshal named Azrael William Holt is called in to investigate the killings. What hea brilliant young geologistis stranger and more horrifying than anything they could have ever imagined.
Murder is the order of the day in this historical horror story set before the turn of the twentieth century. It’s a slow burn horror story, though. The issue is far more interested in developing the characters and setting than it is the horror aspects. This might seem counterintuitive for a horror story, but Canary #1 succeeds in every way.
It’s 1891, and Canary #1 opens in the aftermath of a bloody murder. Marshall William Holt (no one calls him by his first name, Azrael) was called into the small town in Utah Territory to solve it. The victim is a school teacher, and she was killed by one of her students: Johnny Apple. After confronting Johnny’s family, and being forced to kill them, Holt brings the child in. This isn’t the only disturbing murder, though. A number of others have been committed in the same general area recently. Holt is sent to investigate the old Canary Mine and determine whether contaminates from it are moving people to violence.
Nothing feels right in Canary #1. It starts from the first page. Yes, the issue opens with a murder. But something else hangs over the entire issue. There isn’t just a sense of dread, but there’s also a sense of inevitability that another shoe or two is going to drop. This is a credit to Snyder who manages to keep that going for 50 pages. Maintaining the level of tension found here for 50 pages is not easy.
Snyder plays with names particularly well here. His selection of Azrael for the marshall’s largely unspoken first name, a detail almost buried in the final pages, is almost certainly no accident. Azrael is connected to Islam, Judaism, and Christianity (though these connections are perhaps more extra-biblical than explicit in scriptures) as the angel of death. This choice of name takes on even greater significance when we’ve already seen the character wear a handkerchief mask with a coffin drawn on it.
Where Snyder is likely playing it straight with the meaning of Azrael for Marshall Holt’s real first name, his use of Canary for the name of the mine that might be contaminating the water supply is a clever inversion. Canaries were used in coal mines to detect toxic gasses before they could hurt humans. In this case, the Canary Mine would be causing harm as opposed to saving others from it.
Panosian’s art creates a truly dated feel in Canary #1. At times the backgrounds and even groups of characters have the kind of rough look and uneven lines one might see with a rubbing. The coloring benefits from this as well. Panosian keeps the issue relatively vibrant. But using rougher lines, as well as uneven brush strokes with backgrounds, dulls the colors slightly to create an older, lived in look.
This doesn’t come at the expense of fine detail when needed, though. When it comes to characters’ faces, Panosian’s linework is very controlled and coloring doesn’t get the same rough treatment. Marshall Holt’s expressions are easy to understand. Johnny, the young boy who killed his teacher, looks downright disturbing. The art balances overall setting with specificity.
Canary #1 is sparse with sound effects, and for the most part they work as punctuation in the moment but don’t stand out stylistically. One attention getting exception is a moment when Holt shoots down three horses and the corresponding BAMMM’s run like a ribbon in front of one horse and then weaves between the legs of another. Also noteworthy is that the dialogue bubbles are all colored a light canary yellow instead of the usual white. The choice reinforces the idea of a slightly worn past setting.
Canary #1 provides everything you want in a horror comic. The creative team delivers a lived-in setting without a need for excessive exposition. The characters are captivating, even those that appear briefly. The horror elements are on a very slow burn, creating a great deal of tension, and the disturbing elements promise yet more. It will be hard for the rest of the series to live up to the first issue’s standards. But for now this is a must buy, especially for horror fans.
Canary #1: Marshall Azrael
- Writing - 10/1010/10
- Storyline - 10/1010/10
- Art - 10/1010/10
- Color - 10/1010/10
- Cover Art - 9/109/10
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