A horror comic book line curated by Joe Hill is noteworthy genre news. With a mug of tea and covered by a throw blanket, I dug into one of the graphic novels jointly published by the aptly-cheekily named Hill House Comics, and DC Black Label. Daphne Byrne was the ideal companion for the appropriately windy and rainy afternoon. Set in 1886 New York, the tale of the titular character is a delight to behold. Renowned comic book artist Kelley Jones (contributor to the DC Batman and The Sandman series) provides the visuals, enhanced by colorist Michelle Madsen. The text is by noted television (The Good Fight, The Expanse, BrainDead, The Exorcist, Ray Donovan) writer Laura Marks in her first foray into the medium of graphic novels. Marks exhibits a reverence for horror staples and history. She laces the 19th Century literary stylistic elements of the narrative with hat tips to genre touchstones that permeated the 20th Century.
The eponymous Daphne Byrne initially resembles Sara Crewe, the protagonist of A Little Princess (1905) written by Frances Hodgson Burnett. In the beloved novel Sara loses her father and the financial fallout following his death causes her to be ridiculed at her posh boarding school. Fourteen-year-old Daphne suffers the same fate but responds to the circumstances differently than the capable and resilient Sara. Always atypical from the other girls at the school, Daphne is an outsider who embraces her Goth (an anachronism, I know) side courtesy of a mysterious adolescent boy who may be her supernatural soul mate. There is an ambiguity about this adolescent guide into the dark realm; he could simply be a manifestation of Daphne’s troubled young mind. Daphne sees duplicity all around her so the disturbing concept of a having a spiritual evil twin is oddly consistent with the world she inhabits.
Writer Marks invokes established features of the period including Spiritualism; women physically and emotionally corseted; gender and economic discrepancies. The gaslit streets of New York are filled with shadows: metaphysical and metaphorical as well as palpable. Marks and illustrator Jones work the shadowy obscurity to advantage.The list price for Daphne Byrne is $24.99 USD. While that may seem a bit steep, the volume contains all six chapters of Daphne’s saga as well as extras including interviews, and accompanying artwork, with Marks and Jones. In the Marks interview, she mentions that Joe Hill distills the horror of Daphne Byrne as “The Omen in petticoats.” She declares that her take would be closer to “Henry James meets The Exorcist.” I detected allusions to Rosemary’s Baby, Carrie, the other, and Let the Right One In. Whatever references a reader may discern, this collaboration of talented folk is a welcome addition to the horror field.