Putting teen-aged characters at the heart of a horror story surely isn't a new concept, but thanks in large part to the success of Netflix's Stranger Things, there's been a major resurgence in equating supernatural terrors with the experience of adolescence. Tackling this specific time frame in a character's life comes with complications, as if you make the tale too disturbing, you overwhelm younger readers, and if the book is too playful, you might turn off devout horror fanatics. In the debut issue of Shadecraft, writer Joe Henderson and artist Lee Garbett deftly navigate that balance of whimsy and the macabre to make for a promising tease of a series where monsters really do lurk in the dark.
Zadie Lu has enough on her plate, between having unrequited romantic feelings towards her best friend Josh and her brother being in a coma after a car accident, but otherworldly forces don't seem to care about any of these trivial matters, as shadows begin to manifest into real-world beings and terrorize her. As if coming to grips with this living nightmare isn't overwhelming enough, a surprise discovery proves she might not be as alone in this battle as she thought.
Comic fans might know Henderson and Garbett's work from their Eisner-nominated Skyward, with the pair capturing a similar sense of whimsy and exuberance in this new series, but with a much more sinister twist. However, even for those who don't recognize that acclaimed work, what truly makes Shadecraft feel like such a discovery is how quickly it immerses you in Zadie's world.
From the opening pages, readers will discover Zadie's complicated history with Josh, her family troubles due to her brother's accident, and, of course, the supernatural presence. Like those of us who have been through high school already, Henderson and Garbett know that your entire world can be shattered in a matter of moments, as the world won't hold your hand through this challenging period in your life. Similarly, Zadie sees a rough night grow worse, with little regard for how overwhelming it all is. Added to those reveals is the fact that no one else gets to witness this bizarre assault, isolating her from her family and friends even further.
Despite the inherent darkness of the concept, Garbett and colorist Antonio Fabela know you can't have all that dark without some light, seamlessly transitioning from sequences filled with grim shadows and weighty figures into the more playful delight of the high school's diverse student body. As if the artists' shadow and light weren't effective enough in displaying that balance, Henderson manages to turn Zadie herself into a hopeful beacon of light, with her personality and charm illuminating even the darkest encounters.
The issue moves at such a riveting pace that, at times, it can even become disorienting. Despite this clearly being the first issue of a series, the connections between characters are so well established that you might feel as though you missed a preceding chapter in this story that set up the entire affair. Henderson manages to deliver copious amounts of exposition for this world without utilizing traditional sequences elucidating our characters' histories, yet this issue is so devoid of these troops, it's easy to think you may have skipped a page while feverishly flipping through the comic. Luckily, even with the swiftness of the narrative making the book a page-turner, by the time you get to the final panels, some unexpected reveals do shed enough insight into the journey we just saw unfold, making the entire experience feel more substantive.
The mileage found in Zadie's story will certainly vary, but what makes Shadecraft #1 so strong is how much it accomplishes within its finite number of pages, effortlessly crafting a complex backstory for our characters while also teasing that we're only scratching the surface of the horrors set to unfold. Finding the right blend of the playful and macabre, Shadecraft is setting the stage for a frightening story, regardless of whether those horrors come from the real world of navigating high school or from a darker realm of existence.
Published by Image Comics
On March 31, 2021
Written by Joe Henderson
Art by Lee Garbett
Colors by Antonio Fabela
Letters by Simon Bowland
Cover by Lee Garbett