Review: The Woods Vol. 1: The Arrow
The premise of The Woods will sound familiar to many teen readers, who have likely encountered more than one comic with which this new sci-fi high-school survivalist tale shares DNA.
An entire high school—students, faculty, and facilities—is instantaneously transported to a mysterious forest on what appears to be an alien planet. Not only do they have to figure out where they are, how they got there, and how they can get back, they also have to survive long enough to do so, which won’t be easy, as they are under attack from exterior forces like bizarre alien monsters, and they have to deal with the interpersonal conflicts that inevitably arise in such an extreme situation as complete isolation from the rest of the civilized world.
Before I’d finished the first of the four individual issues that comprise this trade paperback collection, I was reminded of various manga series I’ve read over the past few years, like Battle Royale, Cage of Eden, High School of The Dead and, most especially, Kazuo Umezu’s The Drifting Classroom, which The Woods sounds so similar to on paper that it almost seems to be an Americanized adaptation of it…at least in the opening chapter. As the story progresses, it becomes clear that despite the many similarities, The Woods and Drifting Classroom at least find their teleported schools landing in very different locales.
Of course, it’s unfair to judge a work based on how similar its premise might be to another work. What matters more is the execution—specifically, what the creators do with that premise. And that makes evaluating The Woods at this early juncture a bit difficult, as its creators are obviously holding a lot back in order to stoke the mystery and keep readers engaged and guessing (and, of course, reading).
The Woods is the work of writer James Tynion IV, a rising star of mainstream superhero comics (thanks in large part to his work on DC’s Batman line, often in collaboration with Scott Snyder, who offers a blurb to adorn the back of this collection), and artist Michael Dialynas, whose previous work was Amala’s Blade.
Their tale opens with what is apparently a typical day at Bay Point Preparatory High School in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and we are quickly introduced to a core cast of characters: Field hockey friends Karen and Sanami, bad boy Calder McCready, quiet giant Ben, student council president Maria, Principal Beaumont and so on.
Suddenly, there’s a flash of light, a long rumbling noise, and wherever Bay Point Prep is taken to, it’s certainly not in Wisconsin anymore.
Anti-social genius Adrian Roth notices a strange, glowing arrow-shaped thingamabob that seems to speak to him, while most everyone else notes the strange bat-like creatures with sharp teeth and too many wings. The situation grows desperate fast, when a scared student is devoured by a many-eyed monster that looks like it might have escaped from Guy Davis‘ sketchbook.
The school quickly divides into two groups. Adrian takes a group of kids with convenient skills on a secret mission into the heart of the woods, following “the arrow,” while everyone else holes up in the school, and an intense power struggle begins immediately, involving the coach and jocks, the know-it-all student council leader, and the principal.
Tynion seems to find a good balance between seeding the mystery with clues and focusing on the inherent drama of the situation, and his experience writing serial superhero comics certainly serves him well when it comes to structuring the ups and downs of dramatic cliffhangers of the sort that end each issue (and the most dramatic of which ends the final issue collected in this trade) and their resolutions.
Dialynas’ character designs tend toward the generic, and his faces and figures are pretty rough, but he certainly makes up for it with the creature designs and renderings. These are all pretty inspired and scary, at once familiar and extremely wrong feeling; that unsettling, if appropriate, feeling of wrongness is furthered by Josan Gonzalez, who invests the strange setting and stranger inhabitants with sickly neon colors and off-putting lighting.
The Woods could, naturally, fall apart pretty quickly, and much will depend on the answers Tynion provides to the central questions of his narrative and if it ultimately proves to be anything more than a genre exercise. But, as a first volume in a series anyway, it certainly serves its purpose: It makes a reader want to know what happens next.
About J. Caleb Mozzocco
J. Caleb Mozzocco is a way-too-busy freelance writer who has written about comics for online and print venues for a rather long time now. He currently contributes to Comic Book Resources' Robot 6 blog and ComicsAlliance, and maintains his own daily-ish blog at EveryDayIsLikeWednesday.blogspot.com. He lives in northeast Ohio, where he works as a circulation clerk at a public library by day.
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