Written by Joshua Williamson
Art by Mike Henderson
Published by Image Comics
Release Date: May 7th, 2014
Riding the wave of the continuing success of his haunted house thriller, Ghosted, Joshua Williamson launches another ambitious horror comic with Nailbiter. Along with artist Mike Henderson, Williamson dives head first into the popular serial killer horror subgenre. The combination of a great hook that you’ll wish you thought of, an interesting mystery, wonderful art, and genuine creepiness results in a strong first issue for what looks to be one of 2014’s most promising new titles.
Our society has been fascinated by the concept of serial killers for as long as there has been murder. From Jack The Ripper to Ted Bundy to the Zodiac Killer and Son of Sam, serial killers have made headlines that captured the imagination of millions throughout the world. Pop culture has also embraced the concept through books, film and television. We live in a world where Hannibal Lecter, Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, and Dexter Morgan are all among some of the most popular, recognizable fictional characters throughout the world. Our fascination with serial killers both real and fictional aren’t about living vicariously through these evil people. Rather, at our core we wonder what can drive somebody to embrace the darkness and evil that we are all capable of, but only comes out in the worst of us. It is this idea, and line of questioning that drives the central mystery of Nailbiter.
Nailbiter is the story of Buckaroo, Oregon, its citizens, and the troubled law enforcement officers who are determined to find out the town’s darkest secret. Buckaroo might as well change its name to “Serial Killer, Oregon” as it has produced 16 of the most infamous serial killers in history. The members of this illustrious group are collectively known as the “Buckaroo Butchers.” The story starts as Edward Warren, the eponymous Nailbiter, and last of the Butchers is apprehended by police in Riverside, California. Three years later Army Intelligence Officer Nicholas Finch gets a call from Warren’s arresting officer Eliot Carroll, who asks Finch to get to Buckaroo as quick as possible. Carroll claims to have figured out the big secret behind the Buckaroo Butchers, but by the time Finch gets to town Carroll is nowhere to be found. Here lies the central mysteries of Nailbiter; what happened to Eliot Carroll, and what was the big secret that he uncovered? Finch looks to retrace Carroll’s steps, figure out what he knew, and save his friend.
The first issue isn’t overtly scary, but it is genuinely creepy with a real sense of atmosphere that evokes some of the greats in the genre. Finch coming into Buckaroo as an outsider felt quite a bit like FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper trying to solve the murder of Laura Palmer in Twin Peaks. The town of Twin Peaks, Washington was weird, and as a viewer paranoia set in as you felt anybody could have been responsible for Laura’s death. Here in Nailbiter that same feeling is felt throughout the debut issue. The way the story is setup the reader knows that Buckaroo is home to 16 past serial killers, that it has a secret, and that Carroll is missing, presumably because he figured out that secret. That sense of paranoia lingers as we meet several Buckaroo citizens over the course of the issue, and there is an immediate distrust of every single one. First there is Alice, the seemingly anti-social teenager. Hank and Bobby, are her jock/bully classmates who think she is both weird, and destined to become the next Butcher. While conventional storytelling will tell you that she will be an ally to Finch, you can’t help but wonder about her. Why do people think she is the next butcher? Then you have the “creepy old guy” Raleigh Woods who makes money off of the Butchers as owner of “The Murder Store.” While he primarily serves as a device to dump information on the reader, including an introduction to the first Buckaroo Butcher, there’s no way you can trust a man with that evil looking of a grin on his face. Not to mention he is profiting off of these murders so wouldn’t he want to keep them going? Williamson, by giving the readers just enough information, fosters this paranoia, and it makes the issue a complete joy to read.
Overall, the script is sharp, but there is an eight page stretch in the middle where the story drags a bit, and suffers from trying to setup a tad too quickly. Ultimately these flaws are minor because they are covered up by the atmosphere surrounding Buckaroo that was established quickly and effectively. There is the already mentioned info dump by Raleigh Woods that slows the story down followed immediately by a contrived fight scene whose only purpose is to bring Sheriff Crane into the book. Once Crane and Finch meet the story is propelled forward, as she knows Carroll. It sets up a great cliffhanger that will immediately remind readers of the circumstances one of the serial killers mentioned above in the second paragraph.
While all of the creepiness and overall atmosphere in the comic is represented well in the script, it is brought to life expertly by artist Mike Henderson. This is a book that is not messing around, and it is wonderfully gory. Henderson gets to stretch his artistic muscles early, as the second and third pages are a double splash of The Nailbiter in action while the cops bust in to arrest him. The visual of Warren sitting there covered in blood while chewing on the finger of a corpse is not only one that sets the tone of the book immediately, but is a memorable page that will stick with readers for awhile. The dark and dreary weather of the Pacific Northwest is on full display here. Henderson’s approach to the weather is reminiscent of the television show The Killing, where the rain adds a bleak sense of dread to all of the proceedings. The same goes for this issue, as the dark, rainy weather allows a darker color palate to be used. The colors help establish the atmosphere, and sense of paranoia that are so important to the story. Another strong aspect of the art are the character designs, primarily those of the Buckaroo Butchers. Warren’s long blonde hair and good looks are juxtaposed with his vileness to give off this creepy Ted Bundy vibe. Then you have the hooded Book Burner who was the first of the serial killers to come out of Buckaroo, and couldn’t be more different visually from The Nailbiter. Hopefully Williamson will introduce us to the other 14 Buckaroo Butchers throughout the series, and that Henderson continues to design each of them to be completely different from one another. These character designs could be a highlight of what looks to be a strong comic book.
Readers who are fans of the serial killer genre in general, or fans of shows like Hannibal looking to scratch that itch in comic form are going to love Nailbiter. The first issue is an intriguing debut that primarily serves as a setup for what’s to come, but does so in a way that is mostly successful. This being a first issue with a lot of pieces to out in place causes some parts to be buried with exposition, but Williamson and Henderson establish such a strong sense of atmosphere, resonating from the central mystery, that these flaws can be overlooked. The sheer amount of possibilities as to what comes next as Finch uncovers the secret of Buckaroo, and the fate of Carroll is extremely exciting, and that excitement is a sign of a successful first issue.
The Verdict: 9.0/10