I've recently rediscovered the series 'The Dead Man'. At the time it came out, it was very much a mystery story that focused on the question 'Who is the Dead Man?' I certainly didn't guess the answer, and was suitably blown away by the reveal in the penultimate episode. Don't worry, I'm not going to give it away now!
The point is, I hadn't really expected the story to carry much weight without that mystery element, but it turns out I was dead wrong. It is in fact one of the finest horror stories ever printed in 2000 AD, largely down to terrific artwork from John Ridgway.
Ridgway has always had a way with faces. He's quite into lines and wrinkles and expressions generally, which sometimes make me feel that his drawing is less polished than other artists, or even a bit childish if I'm being bold. But it also really draws you into the characters, and hits you round the face with their emotions - and that's a hell of a source of horror.
The other genius thing about the Dead Man is that writer John Wagner tells the story through the eyes of young Yassa Povey, a teenage boy who for me represents the average 2000 AD reader (you know, back in the days when comics were for kids, and not for 20-30 somethings). He's adventurous, cocky, loved by his parents and when it comes to it, a bit of a scaredy cat. Wagner puts Yassa through his paces alright, and it's his personal arc that generates the horror, and makes the story endlessly re-readable, even when the 'mystery' angle just seems obvious. His fate is properly nasty, and I'm afraid I am going to spoil that in a minute. Although, as with all great horror, it's my contention that knowing his fate makes it all the nastier when it happens...
Ridgway's taking centre stage for this quick flick through the series. I don't know if it was him or Wagner who decided on the trick of focusing on eyes throughout the series, but it sure works a treat. We begin with the boy's discovery of the Dead Man - large white eyes giving life to a burnt-out husk of a man:
The Dead Man is brought back to the village to recover at Yassa's house. A lot of the villagers don't like it. I love the difference Ridgway manages to get across between a frightened child and bigoted adults.
And then Yassa starts having nightmares.
And nightmares upon nightmares. I still struggle to look at the last panel here without feeling a mixture of terror and disgust.
The classic 'wake from a nightmare into another nightmare' - an oldie but goodie.
And with that, The Dead Man decides he must leave. Of course, brave, foolish and still very scared Yassa goes with him. All too soon, they're in the woods, surrounded by beasties, Yassa's bright eyes a beacon in the darkness:
And then he runs into real trouble, the very source of his nightmares.
And just when you thought he couldn't open his eyes any wider:
Leading to the inevitable, haunting finale
What a great series. And, it looks like it'll be reprinted in time for Christmas, along with a certain sequel...