“What possible reason is there to help that petty fraud?”
Fearscape is a tragedy. That is fundamental to the story since the moment it begins, despite all the futile attempts of its protagonist, Henry Henry, to make it seem otherwise. Then again, Henry Henry would likely despise this assessment. Carefully crafted by the creative team of Ryan O’Sullivan, Andrea Mutti, Vladimir Popov and Deron Bennett of Andworld Design, Fearscape is very much about narratives and storytellers, both false and true. The lead, Henry, is a plagiarist with delusions of literary grandeur. Judging everyone and everything to be against him, Henry is a paranoid and deeply deluded man who’s desperate for control. And it’s for this reason that the series even begins with a self-aware 9-panel grid.
Henry is obsessed with control and specifically, control of narrative. And in grasping for said control, he’s every bit as ostentatious and elitist as one might expect. Right out the gate, the book establishes character effectively with the grid, where in he mocks it, its usage and those who choose to utilize it. The meta-fictional nature of the series, established right from that first page, from the get go, is a fun choice. But what’s really worth exploring is why it makes the choice to begin with. It’s easy to assume that the choice is merely a stylistic one, but it’s so, so much more. Fearscape‘s fourth-wall breaking is all in relentless service of character. The decision to effectively reflect its protagonist, his thoughts and obsessions clearly on the page and the very telling of the story, allowing the reader a perfect window into the mind of the character, that’s why the book is what it is.
At his core, Henry is a storyteller. While he boasts of originality and courage, he’s a shameless plagiarist and a true coward. But nevertheless, being the deluded man he is, he tries to paint himself as a true genius, the consistently misunderstood auteur, the victim who’s ever preyed upon by everyone and anyone he comes across. And that need for control, that need to manipulate narrative, is at the heart of Henry. And it’s also why the book’s choice of the very telling of the story makes so much sense, where in the book basically speaks to the reader. But, given Henry is the lead, it also reflects his incredibly incompetence at trying to control narrative.
One of the really inspired choices in the book is Henry’s captions placed on top of others’ speech balloons, trying to hide what is really being said or spoken. Henry will even go as far as to write in the words that he hoped were said, making up conversations that do not fit the moment in the slightest (Bennett’s lettering is particularly brilliant in moments like these). Henry does this constantly, attempting to re-write and misrepresent actual events to suit his liking. But since he’s an incompetent creator, telling poor lies and with such little effort, we see through it. He fails, very visually on the page, as he does over the course of the narrative. The book’s ability to capture its character so clearly across every moment on the page is part of what makes the reading experience so compelling here. Storytelling is control, it’s making something up, or lying, if you will, with truth at its heart and it’s about control, manipulating the pieces to achieve or elicit a certain effect out of the reader. It’s why the entire book becomes Henry desperately trying to control every moment and twist it, spin it to his favor, as we watch it ultimately be wrested from his hand.
And it’s this terrible need to manipulate, lie, control, spin things, using various and techniques available, no matter how poorly, that make Henry such a tragedy. Fearscape, in doing what it does, is very much a focused character portrait with a clear point of view. So naturally, the question emerges, what even happened to Henry Henry to make him into the pathetic, cowardly and at times, utterly evil man that he is? What leads to a Henry Henry? It’s a question many in the book have posed before, with even the very personification of Henry’s heart asking that he reveal that which he buries so deep, that which he does not speak of and hides constantly, that which led him down the road to where he’s at.
Issue #5 has an answer to that question. Packed with a huge revelation here, as the reader, while still no closer to Henry, is able to discern and understand how he might’ve come to be. We’ve known that Henry met Arthur Proctor as a kid, full of life and joy, ecstatic at the idea of becoming a writer. Arthur was his favorite writer, his hero, his idol and dream, he was everything he loved and aspired to. So what could sour Henry so much on Arthur, who has been portrayed as a kind man thus far? What could make him despise writers of genre fiction, the great fantasy writers and the heroes of the past, when he himself adored a fantasy scribe, Arthur? The creative team has answers and they’re not necessarily ones that are easy to swallow.
The Fearscape is a realm where fears are made real, absolutely literal and it’s the storyteller’s job to face them. But given we’re dealing with Henry, he ends up in a situation where he makes the new great fear, the new terror that must be taken down. But when forced to pick what it is (the man is a terrible decision maker), he writes down his name and for once, it’s true. Henry likes to lie and he lies a lot, rationalizing it with deluded ‘logic’ and covering it up with toxicity. But in this moment, he is honest. Henry Henry’s greatest fear? It’s Henry Henry. He is terrified of the person he fundamentally is and cannot escape who he is. Even as he declares ‘The End’ to the readers upon the moment of transformation, more truth spills out. Arthur Proctor was no simple kind mentor, he was also a predator. He regularly sexually assaulted and abused Henry and ensured no one would believe him.
His absolute idol and hero, his dream and all he ever wanted to be turned out to be his greatest terror, his truest fear. And in the face of a world of adults that refused to believe him, Henry felt he was the lone, misunderstood youth that everyone and the world was against. It’s a horrifying realization and it’s a truth that fundamentally re-contextualizes the entire story up until this point. Even the little moments that seemed to previously fit established context and the ones that didn’t and made Henry seem out of control make a ton of sense, as the team flashes back to make every little moment click into place, as dread and pure horror sets into the reader’s stomach. Henry is terrible, but what happened to him is heartbreaking and truly tragic. Suddenly, a lot of his problems’ roots seem understandable. You get why he might turn out this way. Though at the same time, the team ensures that some problematic readings are eliminated by acknowledging how plenty of victims do not turn out to be terrible like Henry was and that he isn’t absolved for his sins. His tale may be tragic, but he is still very much accountable for all his wrongdoings.
The 9-panel grid, with which the book once opened, finally makes a return here. Once everything falls into place and Henry truly loses control of the narrative, finally facing his fear, he’s trapped. The tragedy of his tale is punctuated by the cage-like existence of the grid, as he’s then soon taken away by the police. O’Sullivan, Mutti, Popov and Bennett really have a strong grasp of their choices here, as everything from the latter’s sharp lettering to the former’s brilliantly tongue-in-cheek dialogue work perfectly in sync, while Mutti’s depiction of emotion and mastery of body language, coupled with Popov’s palette blending both the real and the ethereal bring the whole experience together.
Fearscape is a great many things, in a great many ways. But perhaps its most powerful and profound effect might be how it unravels storytellers down to their basest, lowest level, people desperate for control of narratives, weaving false fiction with the aid of an array of techniques and tools, all to feel better in pursuit of some upheld grandeur, all the while fueled by pain and trauma that is seemingly inescapable and actively damaging. Henry Henry is a tragic, terrible warning tale, a man descending downward and downward into his own messes to the point that he can no longer escape them. He’s trapped. But the story isn’t quite over yet, as what seemed to be a finale ticks on, teasing more to come. Whenever it returns, with or without a Henry Henry, this is certainly a book worth waiting for.