“You don’t have to come. But I’m going.”
Content Warning: References to Self-Harm and Domestic Abuse
It’s funny; I didn’t really know what to expect when I first decided to pick up The Cull. I’ve been a big fan of Kelly Thompson’s work ever since the first issue of West Coast Avengers came out, but the bulk of her work that I’ve followed since then has been in the same vein as that series: Deadpool, It’s Jeff!, and the occasional anthology story. You know, fun, relatively-lighthearted comics featuring my favorite character ever, Jeff the Land Shark (I willtalk about him every chance I get). I’ve been meaning to get to Thompson’s more serious and dramatic stuff, and I did read Jessica Jones: Blind Spot while working on this review. It just felt like there was no better place to start than The Cull (besides maybe Black Cloak, but I’ll get on that with the trade).
I was immediately blown away by Thompson’s range as a writer. She’s really good at little wordless comics about silly critters, but simultaneously also good at writing a dark coming-of-age story like The Cull. Even in the limited space of a first issue, the characters leave quite an impression on you. The promotional material for this comic compares it to The Goonies, and I have the feeling that a lot of people are going to instinctively draw parallels to Stranger Things, but the teens in The Cull aren’t a pack of Spielbergian middle school boys in the Eighties. They’re older and from much more diverse backgrounds that we, the readers, get little glimpses into. Cleo, Kaite, Will, Wade, and Lux are modern kids with modern problems: relationships trapped in nebulous states, depression, and even domestic abuse.
As I write these things out, I realize that it makes The Cull sound like another sensationalist or exploitative piece of fiction centered around youth, but…it actually doesn’t feel sensationalist or exploitative. When we’re introduced to Cleo, we see the self-inflicted scars on her arms, but we only see them briefly. As someone who suffers from depression and has had to overcome these sorts of urges, I thought it was really tasteful how it’s not treated as some kind of spectacle. This isn’t fucking 13 Reasons Why or something like that, which fetishizes depression and expects to be patted on the back for being “brave.” I’m sure that there will be a moment later on when other characters see Cleo’s scars and react to them (Cleo wears a sweater for the rest of the issue), but for now I’m glad that Cleo’s depression is simply presented as a state that “exists.” It’s just something that’s caused or exacerbated by the disappearance of her younger brother- a personal struggle rather than a trainwreck we’re meant to gawk at.
In the short time we spend with these characters, we really get a sense of the history between them, both through the things they say, but also the things they don’t say. Their concern for one another and the way they understand what each other is going through says far more about their friendship than any direct exposition could. It gets you really invested in the group and also really concerned about what might happen to them, because there’s a very good chance that they won’t all get out of this alive. The first page of this issue gives way to a double-page spread of a massive, eldritch horror standing on a foggy beach above several pairs of shoes, which radiate some kind of purple energy. Amid this ominous, breathtaking imagery brought to life by artist/colorist Mattia De Iulis, a figure is consumed(?) by some kind of fleshy pod. Letterist Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou provides one bold, anxiety-inducing word that gives the only bit of context for this horrific scene: “NOW.” Have the kids been vaporized? Transported? The only way to find out is to keep reading the series, but whatever their final fate is, it doesn’t look good for them.
Speaking of De Iulis’s art, goddamn, is it beautiful. He’s one of those few artists whose photorealistic style really compliments their work, and the vibrancy of his colors makes his art instantly identifiable and just…really gorgeous. Thompson and De Iulis previously collaborated on Jessica Jones: Blind Spot and Jessica Jones: Purple Daughter, and you can tell that there’s a lot of trust between them in the way that Thompson plots Cleo’s introduction, so it’s entirely reliant on De Iulis’ visual storytelling. For almost four pages, there’s no dialogue or captions. After a glimpse of Cleo’s scars as she makes trail markers and a brief look at a picture of her brother, we follow Cleo as she sneaks past her mother, who’s fallen asleep at the dinner table, making “missing child” posters for that same brother. The silence ends when Cleo receives a text message from Kaite, and there’s just this really cinematic feel to the way the comic establishes things by showing them to you rather than explaining them. It gives the art so much more room to breathe and resonate with the reader.
De Iulis’ art also captures everyday life in a 21st Century Rockwell sort of way. I can’t help but come back to the page of Lux covering her black eye up with makeup. There’s something about the way Lux smiles at her reflection after admiring her handiwork that makes it feel like she’s practicing looking happy. She’s not only hiding her physical injuries from her friends, but her emotional wounds as well. It’s so simple, and yet it feels like it has all of these layers to it.
But on top of that, De Iulis is also good at drawing cosmic crab monsters.
The Cull is haunting and a little heartfelt, perfectly capturing that sweet spot where the mundane meets the extraordinary. It’s Annihilation with meddling kids. Thompson and De Iulis take some familiar pieces and craft them into something that feels really bold and new. Check this one out: you won’t want to miss getting culled.