Each week, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic-book issue of significance. This week, it’s The Wake #7. Written by Scott Snyder (American Vampire, Batman) with art by Sean Murphy (Punk Rock Jesus, Joe The Barbarian) and Matt Hollingsworth (Hawkeye, Wolverine), this issue makes the water a scarier place than ever as it turns up the action to deliver a thrilling sci-fi horror story. (Warning: spoilers ahead.)
Few comic-book artists capture a sense of scale quite like Sean Murphy. With each new project, Murphy pushes himself further to create more sprawling visuals, pulling the reader in by combining meticulous detail with panel framing that presents deeply immersive images at angles that would be incredibly difficult to capture with a film camera.
There’s a distinct manga influence in Murphy’s balance of dynamic action and exaggerated emotional expression, which interacts beautifully with his more European approach to staging and design, simultaneously channeling the work of Moebius in his layouts and the punk sci-fi aesthetic of 2000 A.D in his settings and characters. Murphy’s most recent creator-owned work, Punk Rock Jesus, gave him the opportunity to show off his skills as both writer and artist with a scathing sci-fi commentary of Christian values set in a cyberpunk near future, but Scott Snyder’s epic story for The Wake elevates Murphy to new heights as he depicts events occurring in three different time periods that are centuries apart.
The first five issues of this series largely take place in the present, with brief flashbacks to prehistoric times, setting up the threat of the underwater creatures waiting to assert their dominance over land-dwellers, as well as a flash-forward to 200 years in the future to show the world after the aquatic Mers take control. Whether drawing primal Neanderthals in a natural habitat, contemporary underwater machinery and technology, or a dystopian future where a young woman glides through sunken cities with the aid of her dolphin companion, Murphy, with the assistance of colorist of Matt Hollingsworth, delivers fully realized visuals that amplify the specific tone of the script for each respective time period.
The first half of Snyder’s story is a piece of claustrophobic survival horror, focusing on a group of scientists who find themselves trapped at ground zero for the rise of the Mers. The end of The Wake #5 delivers an outstanding cliffhanger when that crew, including main character Lee Archer, is left for dead underwater as the Mers rise to the surface, killing off the central cast before the series jumps forward 200 years to follow a new heroine, a blue-haired orphan named Leeward. The tone shifts dramatically as the story moves to the future, embracing a blockbuster action influence to show a different approach to sci-fi.
The covers for the second half of the series reflect that new direction: While the first five covers by Murphy connected to create a single ominous image brimming with atmosphere, Andrew Robinson’s covers for #6 and #7 are self-contained snapshots that depict individual moments of action, replacing atmosphere with attitude. The sixth issue’s cover shows Leeward standing in front of a sunset holding a decapitated Mer’s head, a badass visual that is a stark contrast to the cover of #7, a frantic action shot of Leeward holding onto the fin of Dash the dolphin as they flee a group of quickly approaching Mers. The energy of that cover, combined with the foreboding gray coloring of the sky, gives readers a great idea of what to expect from the issue’s dramatic contents, but even then, it doesn’t capture just how vast the scope of the story and artwork is within.
The Wake #7 begins with a flashback to Leeward as a child on the day she lost her parents to General Marlow, a law enforcement official who likes to use the “Pledge Of Allegiance” to threaten his opponents. (Marlow’s character is over the top, but this sci-fi action story about killer mermaids doesn’t call for much subtlety.) That scene is the first instance in this issue where Murphy uses a layout that features one expansive establishing shot across the top of two pages and smaller panels along the bottom half, achieving the impact of a splash page without sacrificing page space for the story. It’s a layout Murphy returns to constantly to give this issue a widescreen look, but he switches up the panel structure along the bottom of the pages to keep the visuals varied.
The two-page sequence introducing readers to the battleship Leeward and her friend Pub are currently imprisoned on has a much different rhythm than the two-page sequence showing Marlow and Governess Vivienne at The Great Ice Tower. The panels along the bottom half of the battleship pages continue to use widescreen panels to further emphasize a sense of place, while the panels for the Ice Tower are smaller and vertically oriented to detail the separate beats of Marlow and Vivienne’s conversation. That layout returns when a giant Mer appears from the water and capsizes the battleship. The image across the top reveals the destructive force and ensuing chaos of the Mer’s attack, and Murphy uses large vertical panels because so much of that scene is about things falling, from Leeward plummeting off the ship’s plank to the vessel itself being completely overturned by the skyscraper-sized creature.
There are only two full splash pages in this issue, and the story justifies why those images need to be completely alone. The first is the stunning shot of the huge Mer leaping out of the water and throwing itself on top of the battleship, a visceral image that makes impeccable use of negative space; over half the page is black, which not only helps establish distance for the zoomed-out visual, but creates a sense that dark is taking over light and there’s nothing the light can do to save itself. The colossal Mer is scary on its own, but in that giant pool of darkness are even more horrors that the passengers of that battleship have to face when they’re thrown from the craft. That darkness is illuminated when Leeward finds herself swimming for her life while Mers attack her fellow prisoners, creating a juxtaposition between all the gruesome death and the tranquil setting of a sunny sky against clear blue water.
The second splash page is the issue’s final image, revealing that the enormous Mer that sank the battleship is actually a dead shell being used as a vessel by the Outliers, people who have allegedly mated with Mers and become pirates and cannibals. It’s a wonderful reveal that completely upends reader expectations, turning the beast that was just moments ago an instrument of death and destruction into Leeward’s only hope for the future. The Outliers are lit with a soft pink that sticks out after pages largely governed by yellow and blue, and that gentle hue, combined with the smile on the pirate captain’s face, brings an element of optimism to a story that has only taken turns for the worst up to this point.
Fitting for a title that spends so much time in the ocean, Matt Hollingsworth’s work on The Wake has the delicacy of watercolors, delivering gorgeous results when applied to the detail of Murphy’s art. On his Twitter account, Hollingsworth has posted a few colored pages of The Wake without line art, and it’s fascinating to see how subtle yet specific his coloring is on this title. Murphy’s inks provide an astounding amount of texture and depth so Hollingsworth doesn’t have to focus heavily on shading to add dimension, giving him the opportunity to use bolder, saturated colors that make Murphy’s work pop even more on the page. Snyder’s quickly paced story has built a lot of history while providing equal amounts of thrills and chills, but it wouldn’t hit with the same impact without the impeccable pairing of Murphy and Hollingsworth.