The idea of being watched has always been horrifying but what if you were being watched… by no one? That sentence might sound like it’s trying too hard, but writer, Cullen Bunn, and artist, Jack T. Cole, have created a comic of sheer terror in Boom! Studio’s The Unsound, where every sign says you’re being watched but nobody is around to do it.
What does that mean? For starters, it means deliberately lingering with Ashli on her commute to work at a new job. It’s her first day, and because a woman’s not allowed to feel safe walking alone, you get these spacious backgrounds that are too vast, and too deserted. Dingy corridors are huge. The subway car seems to go on forever. It’s crowded but there’s room for everyone on the edges. You don’t have many standing and it’s not cramped or jostled, which is unnatural. It’s this horror sweet spot of waiting for the ground to swallow you up without witnesses. The way Ashli holds her handbag close is exactly what it feels like to be in that situation.
But there are witnesses. Not in the usual sense of the word, but that’s the best part. Instead of having neighbors peeking through blinds in a way that’s sinister, but obvious, panels will suddenly change perspective, so you’re looking out at Ashli from a voyeur’s point of view. More importantly, you’re not looking out, from the point of view of one of her neighbors, but behind them, where nobody else is around. You shouldn’t have access to this point of view, and when it happens the first time it’s noteworthy. When it happens the second, and you’re looking at Ashli from the window of an unknown cat lady, this unexplainable phenomenon has earned your attention for the long haul.
All of this happens before Ashli reaches her destination. Saint Cascia’s is a home “for patients of varying pathologies.” A formidable 19th century property, the security booth outside the gate is plastered with posters for 24-hour surveillance and no trespassing. You don’t need people to man a security camera (that’s one reason they’re installed) but it’s this continual conversation about watching people when there’s no one around, to watch or do the watching.
Ashli wants to help people. It’s why she chose to be a nurse, but when Nurse Jeffers describes what their patients need it’s, “These people need care. They need to be watched.” Letterer, Jim Campbell, lets the wrong word be bold.
The Unsound means silence just as much as it means unstable, and if the comic’s lead-up was strong, meeting the people who work at Cascia’s, and trying to figure out who works there (because everyone has a different opinion) is equal parts frightening and heartbreaking. This isn’t how a hospital runs when it’s free of abuses, and a supernatural ending leaves the fallout in issue two’s court. Ashli isn’t the girl in the scary movie who should know better than to enter the scary building. She’s the girl who enters the scary building because she knows there are people inside who need her, and that’s a comic heroine who has to survive.