Serialized comics do not provide an ideal format for developing a horror story. The genre relies on tension, unease, and other moods that are built across time, and short, monthly installments don't naturally support that sort of storytelling. Stillwater #1 manages to accomplish exactly that, though, and while possessing an extended page count doesn't hurt, it's primarily the work of writer Chip Zdarsky and artist Ramon K Perez who pull it off. They introduce readers to Dan, a protagonist with a short-temper and no idea what he's in for, and a place that holds plenty of secrets and darkness. When he arrives in Stillwater there is a deep disquietude surrounding each element of the setting, and the final few pages release a wave of tension developed throughout Stillwater #1. It's an effective first issue and the rare single issue that functions well as a horror story entirely on its own.
The series' core premise is the discovery of a smalltown in a nondescript region of the United States in which no one dies. Why this is so and how it hasn't hit national news remain open questions, although some answers for the latter are offered by the end of issue #1. The promise of unending life—perhaps, more specifically, of things never changing—is an incredibly alluring concept and one that feels readymade for a wish on a monkey's paw. Introducing the mystery is the focus of Stillwater #1, but there are already suggestions about how the idealization of the past and maintenance of a status quo can quickly become toxic.
Dan is a far from perfect protagonist, his anger management issues are enough to make any reader skeptical about calling him a hero. Those issues—combined with a friend who's able to define what's best about Dan—make him feel human and sympathetic in a way the residents of Stillwater never do. Their conspiratorial nature and ingrained distrust of outsiders fills each page with creeping tension and a sense that far darker elements lurk just below the surface.
Both humanity and its absence are well defined in Perez's artwork. Character expressions are exuberant without devolving into the cartoonish. Big, angry moments land with loud emotions, while more subtle ones belie hidden motives. It's his work that fills Sheriff Ted, his aviators, and rolled up sleeves with the constant threat of violence (well, that and simply seeing the badge he wears). Settings are less distinctive, but more welcoming for readers looking to place them. Sites in the city read like platonic imaginings of urban startups and small town living, providing the sense of places familiar to any reader without losing definition in any given panel. It's not difficult to imagine this story occurring in eastern California, Illinois, or Georgia, and that also allows it to make a broader statement about the American culture.
Stillwater #1 is an impressive debut, one that quickly draws readers into a conspiracy of dark secrets and darker deeds. Rather than falling victim to the constraints of monthly comics publications, its co-creators carefully utilize each page to deliver an effective introductory read. It's the masterful pacing that make the final few pages land like a hammer, and which allow the build towards them to be so thrilling. If future issues continue to balance the demands of the genre with the needs of their story, then readers can expect to discover one of the most terrifying tales of comic book terror from 2020.
Published by Image Comics
On September 16, 2020
Written by Chip Zdarsky
Art by Ramón K Perez
Colors by Mike Spicer
Letters by Rus Wooton
Cover by Ramon K. Perez