Written by Neal Shaffer
Art by Luca Genovese
112 pages, black and white
Published by Oni Press

Neal Shaffer’s last graphic novel, Last Exit Before Toll, was a book that could best be summed up as one that concentrated more on mood and tone than plot. That’s not a bad thing, although if you aren’t expecting it, the end result can be a little startling. That’s more or less the same feeling I got from his new book The Awakening; this is a book where the most important thing is the feeling Shaffer’s trying to evoke from the reader, and that feeling is one of dread.

Francesca is a transfer student, newly arrived to Grenrock Academy. She’s pleased to find her classmates being very accepting and welcoming to her, and her new English teacher Dr. Woodman seems too good to be true. Then Francesca’s fellow students start getting murdered, and only Francesca seems to know who the next victim will be. The problem is that the information is coming to her in visions that began when she plunged into a coma following an attack on her life. Will she be able to communicate what happened, or will her death precede any chance of awakening?

Shaffer’s script for The Awakening is an interesting one; if one didn’t know what the book was about, it would be easy to initially think that it was about something entirely different. Shaffer’s students at Grenrock Academy laugh about boys and schoolwork, even as they neatly avoid obvious pitfalls with Francesca’s status as a transfer student. (To be honest, it was a relief that Shaffer didn’t go for the typical “transfer student as ostracized person” route that shows up in so many works of fiction.) Then everything shifts, and Shaffer begins to ramp up the horror levels of The Awakening. The story itself is pretty standard at this point; students dying one by one, police unable to stop it, and so forth. What made The Awakening stand out for me, though, was the mood that he created. There’s a horrible sense of inevitability that looms over the students of Grenrock, thanks in part to Francesca’s terrifying visions that come to her over and over again. Bit by bit Shaffer takes away everything comforting to his characters, their lives falling to pieces even as they’re ended one at a time. It’s a creepy little story, and its mood sustains it even when the plot is hastily rushed to a conclusion. In the end, it’s the feeling you get when you read it that’s important here, and Shaffer succeeds marvelously.

This is the first English language work for Luca Genovese, and it’s an extremely impressive debut. Genovese’s art is crafted through pages of shaded pencils, and it’s a fantastic looking effect. Genovese is able to make his art both look soft and distinct at the same time; his art has a real sense of texture to it. Characters have hair that looks and moves like the real thing, and their faces are beautifully expressive and realistic. So much of what Genovese does on the page looks fantastic; not only the larger things but the little details, like creases in sheets or light reflecting off a chalkboard. There’s a lot of care that’s gone into the visual look of The Awakening, and Genovese hits all of his marks perfectly.

People expecting a densely plotted whodunit may be a little disappointed with The Awakening, but that’s not what it’s aiming for. It’s a subtle, careful book that will surprise and delight those who let themselves get pulled in to its narrative. Shaffer’s planning on writing two more similarly styled graphic novels, and based on The Awakening I’ll definitely be back for more.

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