A horror story is often at its scariest when it feels real. When it’s tethered to a world that feels authentic, or when the characters are genuine and relatable. Early on in Panic #1, written by Neil Kleid and drawn by Andrea Mutti, we are given a glimpse of a traumatized and bloody woman named Annie Delgado before flashing back to the beginning of the story. She’s about to leave for a Black Lives Matter protest and is assuring her mother that she will stay safe by wearing a mask and staying six feet apart. Any reader now understands that this is our world. A time and place where simply going outside could be dangerous. And for Annie, it’s about to get even worse.
In this first issue of a Comixology Original mini-series, something has happened in New York, and it has caused a PATH train to crash underground. There are ten survivors, strangers to one another, that need to figure out what to do next. Kleid has said that he conceived of this story years ago and that it was originally set around the paranoia of post 9/11. I’d argue it works even better in the COVID era, where we were explicitly told to isolate ourselves from one another. It adds incredible tension to a situation where you have to put your trust in someone else to survive.
There are also political divides among the characters, and Kleid does a fantastic job introducing the ensemble cast as they bicker with each other. The lettering, which Kleid also does, bolds each person’s name when they introduce themselves, and each of them has a unique tone of voice already. One of the survivors is a child, and so far, it is his protection that has kept the group together. Though there is a twist in this issue that proves how distrusting a society can be and how quickly we will strip autonomy from another person. The palpable dread of not knowing what is happening above ground is already seeping into the group, and will surely boil over in further issues.
Andrea Mutti’s watercolor art is incredibly striking, adding a sense of fluid motion to every scene. The main backdrop color is a pale blue, allowing warm and dark colors to easily signal the reader what to focus on. A bright red is used for both the blood of our cast’s companions that brutally died in the crash as well as the MAGA hat worn by one of the survivors, jarring and frightening in both cases. And a sickly green emergency light is the only source of illumination underground, creating an eerie and claustrophobic atmosphere. It’s impressive that with this palette, no expression is lost among the faces or actions. Two hands reaching towards each other or the look of fear in someone’s eyes still feels tangible and important.
The Panic #1 is the first comic I’ve read that actually acknowledges COVID, and the backdrop fits the theme of the book and is used responsibly. I love stories where people are forced to work together, and with such a tantalizing flash-forward, in the beginning, I have no idea how we are going to get from here to there in the story, which is really exciting. As the first of a five-issue series, available digitally at a reasonable price, this is a great entry point for someone wanting to try out comics or someone looking for something to add to their subscription list. Come on, let’s all Panic together.