By Zack Quaintance — The Replacer is a different sort of comicbook release for a few reasons. First is the format. This is a 64-page, full color graphic novella. What does that mean? Essentially, it means that you’re getting about three issues worth of comics (for the price of two, btw) all at once, so the story doesn’t have to take breaks. The Replacer is a dense and concentrated read with a streamlined beginning-middle-end, enabling its narrative to move with patience and really build to a crescendo without periodical trappings like obligatory last page cliffhangers, first page recaps, etc.
The second fundamental quality that sets The Replacer apart from many of the mainstream or mainstream-adjacent creator-owned comics each month, is that it unflinchingly delivers a deeply personal look at its author’s past. An acknowledgement of this is right there in the book’s marketing materials: “Based on Zac Thompson’s true story of coming to terms with a disabled parent.” Nearly every comic has parts of its author in it. Indeed, every story, regardless of the medium. It’s impossible to cleanly divorce a work from its creator (obviously). But The Replacer is something much deeper.
This is a story in which Thompson is almost viscerally processing trauma from his past on the page. A lot of works attempt this, although few are as wildly successful with it as this one. What’s key to The Replacer being such a compelling read, is that Thompson does so in a way that does not let his younger self off the hook, does not seek to engender pity or even sympathy. Through much of this work, Thompson seems to simply be saying, this is what happened with my family, this is how it felt. You can read more about it in our interview with Thompson.
Thompson’s scripting in The Replacer is so unflinchingly honest that it can become uncomfortable at times, uncomfortable in a way that absolutely serves this story and makes it all the more powerful. This is afterall, a horror story, wherein discomfort is at premium (see recent classics of the genre, including It Follows and Get Out). Speaking of which, what The Replacer also wisely does is extrapolate real life events and feelings into a genre story. Doing this is, in my opinion, a writing approach that has grown into one of the strongest qualities of modern comics, present in everything from Grant Morrison’s best superhero writing—so clearly influenced by past use of psychedelics and present theories about transcendence—to Tom King’s blatantly allegorical Mister Miracle.
That’s all part of what grabbed me right away with The Replacer. I really was immersed in this one from the start, too. The entire creative team here absolutely nails the story’s opening scene, which takes the really welcomed approach of starting with something happy, rather than opening on the monster. This is maybe an effect of the team using the graphic novella format. They don’t need to shoehorn a time jump or an action scene into the opener to grab attention. Instead, this story can start at its absolute beginning, which is a very underrated place for a story to start. No flashbacks, just putting the audience in the moment (which is 1995, incidentally) and letting us feel as the characters do. The mark of a great story is that you don’t need to wrinkle the time to make it flow, and The Replacer is a great example of that.
This opening scene also shows us something very important to all that comes after it: what life was like before the protagonist’s father suffered a stroke. It’s a brief scene, and the majority of the story is spent examining the aftermath of that incident. All of it, however, is made more powerful by knowing what the child has lost. Embitterment is a big feeling in this story, and it’s easy to feel it right along with the lead character. Something as simple as watching kaiju movies with his dad is completely taken away, and it really hurts.
Arjuna Susini’s artwork is also efficiently detailed here, working in visual touches that really serve to heighten the immersive feel. A Super Mario poster on a wall, a Goonie’s VHS on a shelf, the ubiquitous ‘90s 2-liter plastic bottle of soda on the dinner table...I’m also a child of the ‘90s and these visuals really took me back. Susini also adeptly weaves the eventual horror imagery into the everyday scenes, doing so in a way that uses space and placement to question what is and is not real. It’s great work, complimented nigh-perfectly by Cunniffe’s colors, which deserve much of the credit for setting the ambiance that makes the aforementioned horror scenes so frightening. Letterer Marshall Dillon also continues to be a secret weapon for yet another of AfterShock Comics’ publications, expertly leading the eye with his work.
Overall, The Replacer was one of the best reading experiences I’ve had within the comicbook medium so far this year. I found it to be immersive, compulsively readable, and nearly impossible to put down. I also found it to be one of those rare works that gets so personal and specific, that the feelings and plot points within start to become universal. I know I began to relate it to my own upbringing, my own familial tragedies. In the end, the best compliment I can give to a horror comic is that it made me feel chills, and this story certainly did that, during both the horror scenes as well as the scenes in which challenging family dynamics took hold between characters. This is a really powerful comic, one that I hope inspires more work in this format and of this level of courageous honesty.
Writer: Zac Thompson
Artist: Arjuna Susini
Colorist: Dee Cunniffe
Letterer: Marshall Dillon
Publisher: AfterShock Comics
Release Date: April 24, 2019
Read more graphic novel reviews with Trade Rating.
Zack Quaintance is a tech reporter by day and freelance writer by night/weekend. He Tweets compulsively about storytelling and comics as BatmansBookcase.