For our October horror theme for Graphic Reviews, we’ve so far covered zombies, insane asylums and weird westerns so for the final horror review before Halloween, I’ve picked the horror that scares me the most: serial killers. While most monsters are capable of scaring me, nothing scares me as much as the thought of the terrible things people are capable of doing to each other and there are enough historical examples to fuel nightmares for years. This week I’ll be taking a look at Severed, a series about a cannibalistic serial killer who preys on children in the age of the Great War. Severed is written by Scott Snyder and Scott Tuft and illustrated by Attila Futaki. Severed is a story of innocence lost and all the terrible nightmares that wait for the unsuspecting. It slowly builds tension and creepiness in a manner highly reminiscent of Hitchcock and is an original style amongst the usual gore and violence of many horror graphic novels.
Severed opens in Jamestown, NY in 1916 and presents an America that at once is full of hope and also full of dark places that have yet to be explored. While the Great War is raging in Europe, things are looking pretty bright for a young man named Jack Garron. At twelve years old, he’s musically gifted with a mother who only wants the world for him. But Jack has discovered that not all is as it seems. After discovering a mysterious box in the attic, it has come to light that Jack is the son of a traveling musician who dropped him off as a baby with only a picture showing him and his father. Using the name written on the back, Jack has secretly found and written letters to his biological father. Determined to track him down, Jack runs away in the middle of the night with only some cash and a fiddle on his back. As you might expect, things aren’t exactly as easy as a naïve twelve year old boy might expect. Along with all the danger that a life on the road can entail, Jack has become the focus of an extremely dangerous man. Known only as The Salesman, he preys on other children as he draws closer and closer to Jack himself. It will be up to Jack to discover the danger of The Salesman before it is too late and he is added to the list of all the other children that The Salesman has devoured.
Particularly at the beginning of the series, Severed feels as much like historical fiction as horror as Jack navigates the life of a hobo on the rails and the dangers of being alone in a bustling city like Chicago in the early twentieth century. He meets a number of intriguing characters and Snyder and Tuft build the tension by making it clear that few of the many people he meets are to be trusted. The reader is constantly left wondering who will be the first to rip the mask of innocence from Jack and he is easily led one way and then another. Particularly impressive was the relationship built between him and a fellow young runaway, Sam. While I can’t say much without spoiling parts of the story, the trust built between the two boys felt realistic and the challenges to that trust by The Salesman made it feel that much more foreboding. Through his experiences with the dark side of this adventure that he plunged himself into, Jack finally begins to grow up and just in time for his confrontation with The Salesman.
Severed’s greatest strength however is its unusual pacing. It is reminiscent of older, creepier horror stories rather than the fast-paced, gore fests that I have come to expect. Severed is a slow burn of a story that builds the creepiness in each succeeding issue until finally exploding in the seventh and final issue as Jack finally faces the full terror of The Salesman. While you might expect that as a cannibalistic serial killer, The Salesman would get up to some nasty stuff, much of this is limited to a few bloody panels or even left to the reader’s imagination with just hinting of his misdeeds. Far from being disappointing, I loved that Snyder and Tuft made this story intensely creepy and anticipatory rather than outright terrifying. It created a different tone for the series that made it stand out among horror graphic novels. For those seasoned in horror, there’s a twist toward the end of the series that may not shock you but surprised the hell out of me. It signals a change in the tone of the story as The Salesman moves from a foreboding menace to an active, threatening monster and the transition is just brilliantly handled.
From beginning to end, this is a story that ratchets up the tension and fear for the characters from issue to issue until I found my heart racing and desperately hoping that Jack and the others would figure it out before it was too late. I have grown to love horror novels and the way that they can send my adrenaline racing but Severed is something special. The roughly sketched artwork captures the dark, creepy tension of the writing and the slow, intentional pacing make Severed an unusual and compelling horror story. It may not appeal to those that want intensely violent or terrifying stories as it rarely gets above creepy but if you enjoy dark, tension filled horror, Severed is one that absolutely should not be missed.