At this year’s New York Comic Con, I was walking through Artist Alley, not sure where I was going but yet on my way, and I was stopped in front of one of the booths. Someone at the booth had noticed my press pass tag and asked me if I’d like to check out his comic. Not an unheard of thing at Comic Con by any means, but rather than hand me a 22-page issue of something, he gave me two thick-ass full trades! For free!
Now, to be perfectly honest, if he had just given me an issue of something, I would have gotten to it eventually. But the fact that he gave me 400 pages of material no questions asked, I felt I kind of had to look through it sooner than later. I mean, that’s some kind of moxie right there.
The books in question are the first two volumes of Twisted Dark, written by new writer and self-publisher Neil Gibson.
The back cover didn’t give me any details on what I was about to experience. No description of the book, but a series of reviewer quotes. Well, I’m still going to read it anyway, so let’s have at it.
The opening story Suicide with art by Atula Siriwardane wasn’t so much a story as it was a prologue. The four pages lead to a punchline of sorts that may make you laugh or smirk ever so slightly, but you’re going to question yourself for doing so because it’s pretty messed up. If this whole book was about this character, it would be a fantastic introduction. Instead, this is an anthology of stories and what we have is a fantastic introduction to the tone of Twisted Dark.
I hadn’t even grasped the full idea of what this book is about yet as I read the next story Routine with Caspar Wijngaard on art. Taking place in Norway during the 50’s, a man sends his son out hunting and becomes disturbed when he doesn’t come home at night and goes on a one-man search. It’s a pretty solid short story and came off better with me not yet realizing what kind of theme this book had going.
Twisted Dark is made up of eleven short stories in all, with the additional art talent of Heru Prasetyo Djalal, Jan Wijngaard, Ant Mercer and Dan West. The anthology series is best compared to the Twilight Zone, though mostly in the sense that the stories tend to end with some kind of twist. The difference is that Twilight Zone regularly dealt with the supernatural and science fiction, while Gibson uses none of that. Well, okay, there is a story in there that introduces a technology that doesn’t exist, but it’s not something completely unbelievable. By staying away from the beyond, Twisted Dark lets the grounded humans do the talking. The hooks are more cerebral than anything else, putting certain character flaws under a microscope and watching them develop (sometimes over years) into something truly damaging and disturbing.
Gibson’s day job has allowed him to travel the world, which has given him a lot of flavor for his stories. Many different countries are utilized here, each with Gibson going into rather educational detail on their different cultures for the sake of driving the characters forward. Unfortunately, this causes Gibson to become dependent of using narration to move everything along, but it’s a flaw he understands and improves on during his second volume.
The short stories include the Game, where a mental patient insists to a new doctor that they’re on a reality TV show about who can go the longest pretending to be insane. A Lighter Note is about a man named Rajeev whose heroic crusade for better working conditions leads to questions on the ends justifying the means. Rajeev’s status is later followed up in A Heavenly Note, where we see that two wrongs don’t truly make a right as long as at least one of those wrongs still exists in the aftermath. Cocaina is about a man whose self-discipline and work ethic causes him to rise up the ranks as a Columbian cartel big shot and although I could see the moral (though more of a comedic punchline) coming a mile away, the adventure itself is still worth checking out. Windopayne tells the story of a mysterious and physically scarred billionaire inventor with a desire to help the world, yet be left alone. The Pushman is about an overweight, Japanese man whose few prospects were shot down by fate and now he’s stuck working a menial job shoving people onto trains. Then there’s Munchausen’s Little Proxy, dealing with a woman’s lifelong obsession with receiving medical attention and how that sickness mutates when she starts a family. Other than that, we have a few 5-page stories that don’t really give us much to sink our teeth into.
Despite the varying locales in the book, it becomes apparent – though subtly – that these are all in the same continuity. This is a plus, as it kind of improves some of the weaker stories. There are two stories where the lead-up is really well done, but the ending falls flat to me. As it turns out, one begets the other and as a whole, they become stronger.
The one thing that truly links every story together – and this is something I didn’t notice until the very end – is that they all end with one of the characters giving the reader some kind of twisted smile, reflecting the darkness of the tale and driving whatever twist down at us. Even the cover image is taken from one of these stories.
The first trade is a very strong first outing by Gibson, but has its share of flaws. The introduction to the second trade features Gibson admitting that he’s been reading up on the critiques and has been working on improving his craft. He realized that he’s been overdoing the narration and that some people weren’t happy with the lack of gore (not me! I thought it was a breath of fresh air), but seemed perturbed by how people were put off by how dark and twisted his Twisted Dark was, leading to him reluctantly putting together a couple stories that weren’t dark and/or twisted. For me, that wasn’t the problem. It wasn’t that things were too dark, it’s just that things were too bleak. That’s fine when it’s October, but I tend to want something with a little more pep in it, even if the story involves mentally damaged people manifesting their mentally dam… damagedness…? You know what I mean.
With Volume 2 of Twisted Dark, we get some more artists joining the pot, including Marc Olivent, Atula Siriwardane, Arijit Dutta Chowdury, Hugo Wijngaard (wow, what a family!), Mark Martel and Antonio Balanquit Jr. Legacy tells the story of a best-selling artist who’s distraught over how his fame is affecting his skill, while Popular shows a young woman whose life of only caring about popularity and getting as many friends (especially the Facebook kind) as possible causes her downfall. While these two bookend stories aren’t directly connected, it’s a nice touch that they both share a similar moral. Although Popular gets to be the big finale story and even gets represented on both sides of the cover, it isn’t even one of the better stories. Of the ten stories, I’d probably rank it 7th, even if I do really enjoy whenever Caspar Wijngaard stops by to draw one of these.
For the most part of Volume 2, Gibson takes care of his narration crutch by either working up some really good dialogue or having the characters themselves take the narrator role. With his intent to please everyone, Gibson creates a pretty uneven follow-up book. Is it better? It’s hard to say. I guess. Truth is, the good stories completely outshine the stuff from Volume 1. The better ones include Smile, about an 18-year-old mother of a four-year-old who tells a police officer about her infatuation and then secret relationship with a young, handsome teacher. Now that I think about it, Smile is probably my personal favorite Twisted Dark story. Evolution is about a rich man having an argument with his best friend/lawyer about how it’s his own fault that his wife cheated on him because he wasn’t the alpha male that the animal kingdom demands him to be. The ending of that one is masterfully done. Paranoia is really awesome, telling the tale of a man whose fear of home invasion turns into an obsession with safety and gun ownership that drives his wife away and makes him seek professional help. Then there’s If Only, which… damn, man. I can’t even describe this one without giving it all away. Truth be told, it got the best reaction from me and made me grade the book as an overall success.
Unfortunately, the stories that aren’t so hot are lower on the totem pole than the worst of the first book. The Experiment and Becoming a Man are both revenge stories that fail to really impress. To be fair, Becoming a Man, which takes place in Cameroon, has some intriguing setup, but then has an ending so basic that it’s just kind of there. The worst of the stories is HMTQ, about a 103-year-old Canadian man who becomes disgruntled that his 100-year-old wife doesn’t get a signed letter from the queen on her birthday. It’s a sweet story, but doesn’t really fit. While it does have a very amusing callback to an earlier story, it goes on for too long with too little payoff. There are other stories that end rather upbeat, but those at least had an edge to them and even felt like the ending could easily take a turn for the disturbing. HMTQ is pretty straightforward about what it is and is so light that it appears to affect the art. Jan Wijngaard’s art in Windopayne looked just fine, but in this story, it looks like the brightness has been turned on full blast. Or maybe she erased her art before scanning it. Either way, those aspects mixed with the problematic lettering make this the low-point of Gibson’s work.
That said, Gibson has at least two more volumes of Twisted Dark planned and I’m on board for both of them. I kind of like how everything is connected as one singular fictional world and how he strays from going full-on supernatural/sci-fi because it grounds everything. He limits himself from having to resort to some kind of end of the world scenario that could be used for simple shock value. It means that most everything said and done in his books have some basis on human behavior. There are people like this who destroy themselves and others due to their weaknesses and afflictions. Bad people are doing bad things all over and it’s buried into the folds of the population.
You can get your hands on Volume 1 here, an e-book version of it here and Volume 2 here. Gibson’s stuff can be hit or mess, but when he hits, he hits hard. For one guy writing so many twisted and dark stories, he’s exceptional at making each character and setting seem so unique to the point that you never feel like you’re getting the same song and dance twice.
The biggest twist of them all? Neil Gibson starts up Volume 1 with a gag page where he explains the differences between himself and crazy actor Mel Gibson due to name mix-ups. See, I have a different problem. I keep reading “Neil Gibson” and my brain keeps telling me it’s “Neil Gaiman”. Dun dun DUN!
Haha, sorry, had to get that gag out of my system. Seriously, though. Dude shouldn’t be compared to Shyamalan. Gibson deserves better.