By Hussein Wasiti — In my adventures through Comics Twitter, I’ve frequently come across praise for writer Cullen Bunn, who recently penned AfterShock Comics first original graphic novel, Witch Hammer. My familiarity with Bunn and his work extends only to his Big Two comics, and I’ve been anxious to check out some of his other comics for a while. After reading Witch Hammer, I’m glad I did. While there’s nothing wrong with Bunn’s more mainstream work, this story just completely elevated my perception of him as a storyteller, so much so that I’m now inspired to seek out more of his independent work. Witch Hammer is bloody, brutal, and beautiful, with a message that might leave your skin crawling after you put the book down.
Witch Hammer is a horror story that follows Agent Ada Frontenac and her partner Agent Guinness as they investigate a series of gruesome murders, which they believe are all tied into some kind of cult. As it turns out, the truth surrounding the case is something that Frontenac and her partner have a hard time grappling with, especially when they learn who exactly is carrying out these murders and why this man is on his quest for revenge. Our two main characters are ultimately Frontenac herself and the killer, Jacob Nance. Both of their journeys are tied together without the other truly realizing this to be the case.
Frontenac is clearly a woman of faith, albeit one who is struggling with her beliefs. She’s been investigating murders for a while, and her introduction is very deftly handled by artist Dalibor Talajic in a beautiful nine-panel page, one of the few in the book. Bunn doesn’t explicitly state what is going through her head, but Talajic’s deft and efficient storytelling gives readers just enough visual context to understand her headspace. Frontenac overall comes across as a hopeful person who believes justice will be done and those who deserve salvation will receive it. This results in a very personal kind of conflict for her since the longer she investigates murders, the more she questions this line of belief. Her first page features her throwing her cross necklace on her bed, where it lands atop a gruesome crime scene photo. It’s a stark juxtaposition and the perfect encapsulation of not just this comic, but the state of mind of this main character.
I was blown away by Talajic’s work throughout. I’d only previously read his Foolkiller series over at Marvel, but his panelling and overall storytelling was very strong. He uses a lot of panels per page, with an average of around seven or eight, and sometimes as many as eleven. With this, the storytelling was very focused and overall he made great economical use of space. I described his layouts as deft and efficient earlier, and that applies to his entire approach to this story. There is a lot of violence in this book, executed by the characters almost dismissively, and the numerous and precise panel layouts contribute to this element of the story in a really exact manner.
Talajic’s layouts are very restrictive, and readers may find themselves feeling claustrophobic. This could very well be the Talajic’s intention—to create a feeling of cramped unease with the layouts. There are some nine-panel pages here that Talajic lays out a bit differently than one would expect, which I found incredibly refreshing due to many modern artists rarely using the nine-panel page in a substantial way. Sebastijan Camagajevac’s amazing coloring also sets the tone of the story perfectly, while letterer Marshall Dillon deserves substantial credit for managing to render the panels readable, due to their cramped sizes.
The carefully-vague nature of the story somewhat leaves the ending up to interpretation. Bunn is dealing with heavy themes in this book, namely the lines between religion and violence, and whether one intentionally or unintentionally begets the other. What lines can we cross before coming to some semblance of inner peace? When blinded by false promises, who are we to blame: ourselves, or those who lead us on our path to begin with?
Witch Hammer is pretty wonderful, although some who are squeamish to violence may want to steer clear. There are some truly horrifying images (it is a horror comic, after all) that some readers will not appreciate. I myself enjoyed it all quite a bit. Cullen Bunn’s compelling and horrific storytelling combined with Dalibor Talajic’s tight and suspenseful art have given us my favorite comic so far this year.
Writer: Cullen Bunn
Artist: Dalibor Talajic
Colorist: Sebastijan Camagajevac
Letterer: Marshall Dillon
Publisher: AfterShock Comics
Released: Dec. 19, 2018
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Hussein Wasiti is a history undergraduate with an intense passion for comics. You can find his weekly writings over at comicsthegathering.com, and periodically on weirdsciencedccomics.com. He is on Twitter as bullthesis, and lives in Toronto with his hordes of comics.