dark horse

On The John: Dark Horses’ Stranger Things

A Review From John Camarena

As many of you may know, I’m quite a fan of Stranger Things. This show resonates with my 80’s nostalgia. It’s a fantastic blend of pop culture icons; everything from Stephen King to Stephen Spielberg, sci-fi and fantasy. The very first episode got me hooked, from that synthesizer theme song to the sprinkles of Dungeons and Dragons, Knight Rider, E.T., and so on. And the story is great too boot! Unlike the kitchen sink approach that Ready Player One threw at us, this show has an interesting mystery, likable characters, and well-paced action beats. It genuinely captures what it felt like to be a nerdy child with an overactive imagination. And now, while we wait for Season 3’s trailer to drop (any freakin’ day now please!) the supplemental materials are now making their way to tide us over: The Official Stranger Things Companion book, the Dr. Brenner-centric novel Suspicious Minds, and a whole slew of unofficial books are now available, with many more to come. As someone who loves consuming this stuff, I had to dive in and chose the 4-part comic book series just as the 4th issue released, because at the end of the day, Stranger Things is meant to be binged. Does the comic book meet the same level of awesome that the show does? Almost.

Massive spoilers ahead if you haven’t watched seasons 1 and 2, by the way, so here goes. The comic book 4-parter was written by Jody Houser, with art by Stefano Martino. Who are these people? I don’t really know, as I’ve not kept up with comic books for a very long time, but between the two of them, they seem to have done good work in the past. The comic takes place simultaneously with the events of the first season, beginning when Will Buyers realizes there’s something strange and dangerous in his home and runs to hide in the shed out back. Something not shown in the show is how exactly Will ends up in the Upsidedown, and this comic basically shows him teleporting there. Unlike other characters and sometimes the Demogorgon who are shown having to walk or crawl through a gross-looking portal that resembles an open wound in the fabric of reality, Will just kind of blinks and is suddenly in the Silent Hill version of Hawkins that we come to refer as the Upsidedown. Here he has his first encounter with the creature, and Will shoots it right in the toothy petal-head then it disappears. From here, the narrative jumps around with flashbacks to events leading up to the present, such as some more interactions between Will and his friends, Dungeons & Dragons campaigners Mike, Dustin and Lucas. We see a little more of their previous adventure and learn that Dustin and Lucas are apprehensive about Will’s choice to be a Mage, and questions his usefulness to the quest. This is put in contrast with the real danger he is in the present. While being shown as indecisive and defensive in the real world, Will takes action and fights back against the Demogorgon and goes out exploring the Upsidedown, trying to make sense of his situation. It’s here that I really appreciated the comic due to Will processing things as if it was a D&D campaign. Will finds strength by relating to his Mage character, imagining he is on some sort of quest he must endure after being separated from his party. These sections are short, and they depict them both with fantasy-style art and with versions that looked like they were drawn by Will himself, a reference to the character art shown in the series. I actually would have really liked if the whole series was done in this style, as that seems to tie in better without having to reveal too much or make up things that may be out of place or not fit in to the continuity.

Now, the majority of the story is set during the 7 days that Will was missing in the real world, and we do see how some of the time unfolds from Will’s point of view. It is shown that Will can sometimes hear the people calling out to him, and that although the Upsidedown appears to be devoid of life or light, there is still a connection to the powergrid of the real world that he has an indirect effect on. For instance, the Christmas light Ouija board that his mom, Joyce Buyers makeshifts on the living room wall works by having Will touch the corresponding letters on his side, and we are to infer that his proximity to the light is what causes it to react. It’s never spelled out and it is not consistent either; for instance, the first time Joyce hears Will faintly on the telephone, Will was trying to use the walkie talkie. It’s not clear if anyone in the Upsidedown would be able to do this or if there is something special about Will. After some time passes, Will decides to leave the house and explore around the town, and it is during this excursion that he sees Eleven for the first time. She appears almost as a vision, because she does not seem to be entirely corporeal, but she does seem to also see Will, which explains how she knew about him when she sees a picture of him at Mike’s house. The exploration portions turned out to be my least favorite part of this series, however.

Now after Will goes exploring, he essentially visits all the same other parts of the Upsidedown that other characters come into contact with. Will hears Barb scream for help and he follows her voice, but by the time he arrives to the pool outside of Steve Harrington’s house, all that’s left are Barb’s glasses. Will returns home and sees that a portal stared forming in the living room wall and makes brief contact with his mom, but has to run away when again the Demogorgon attacks. While Will is out in the woods, he almost runs into Nancy Wheeler, Mike’s older sister, and Johnathan, his older brother. According to the comic, he was within stone-throwing distance of meeting up with them in the Upsidedown, but just missed them. He also runs into a wounded victim of the Demogorgon that dies before his eyes, and eventually makes his way to Castle Buyers, a wooden fort in the woods of Hawkins, where Eleven makes contact with him letting him know that they haven’t given up hope and are still looking for him, even after a fake body was planted in the quarry by Hawkins Lab and presumed to be him. Finally, after days without food or water and cold due to the lifeless nature of the environment, Will is found by the Demogorgon. Will wakes up in the public library, which is now a nest of sorts and there are other bodies strewn about. While the other bodies appear decomposed, Will is still very much alive in a cocoon-like structure with a long tendril going into his mouth, not unlike the proboscis used by the facehuggers in Alien to impregnate their hosts. We don’t dwell on this too much though, because Joyce and Sheriff Hopper find him right then and take him home. The next few panels before the end are of Will recovering in the hospital and it leads to my favorite part of the whole series: while talking to his mom and brother, we see from Will’s point of view and for a moment, he sees them and his surroundings as if they were in the Upsidedown, with the two of them appearing decomposed while still talking to him. Will convinces himself it’s just his imagination, but leads to the idea that he is still connected to the Upsidedown, which we see later in season 2.

All in all, it was good. The art was well drawn, and the covers of each issue evoke the style of horror and sci-fi movie posters from the 80’s like The Thing and Aliens. The Easter eggs I caught were nice also, such as Mike reading Stephen King’s The Dark Tower in a flashback to get ideas for future D&D campaigns, and a brief glimpse of the Mindflayer, who did not appear in season 1 but was the big bad of season 2. You won’t miss anything important if you skip out on this comic, they leave the worldbuilding to the show, but for fans like myself who can’t get enough of this story, it fills in some of the gaps and gives you more of Will so he feels like he was there the whole time. I’m looking forward to more side stories but really hope they also expand on the mythology. So until the release of Season 3, due July 4th, 2019, this has been John reminding you to Geek Out!

Overall rating of 7.5 out of 10.


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