Imaginary Fiends is in many ways a model Vertigo book. It’s weird and it taps into nearly universal fears to tell a story that could be set in any time and any place. The question of where imaginary friends come from and what happens to them when children outgrow them is something that’s been explored in multiple genres, but Imaginary Fiends puts its own distinct spin on the idea.
The book revolves around a young woman named Melba Li and her imaginary friend, Polly Peachpit, a monstrous spider-woman with a delicate-featured mask and startling number of teeth. Far from a gentle, kind imaginary friend, Polly is the result of Melba’s childhood fears who grew strong by feeding on the girl’s terror. Melba is forced to confront her own fears and their creation, and if that were the extent of this story it may have been enough. But Melba’s story goes beyond the concept, because at a young age she stabbed her best friend 17 times on Polly’s orders. The book opens on this shocking moment and continues into the aftermath as Melba reaches adulthood and enters a new high-security mental health facility.
Melba is quickly introduced to a mysterious FBI agent who claims to be from the I.M.P. division, concerned with Interdimensional Mental Parasites. It turns out Polly isn’t simply an imaginary friend or a childhood delusion: She’s an actual creature that’s been praying on Melba for years. Agent Crockett offers Melba a chance to earn her freedom by helping him find and hunt other IMPs, as she can still see them that he cannot. Melba reluctantly joins Crockett to investigate several missing children, bringing Polly along. It’s a compelling mix of The X-Files and Monsters, Inc., but what makes it reach just a bit further is the way that writer and co-creator Tim Seeley ties the story into real-life events. Melba stabbing her friend at the bidding of Polly is reminiscent of the Slender Man stabbings in Wisconsin in 2014, and there is a slightly clumsy reference to other events that helped to fuel fear and violence in the small town Melba is investigating. Crockett is dealing with his own personal trauma in deeply unhealthy ways that wind up endangering both him and Melba, and every character is flawed.
As Melba and Polly Peachpit delve deeper into the mystery of the missing kids, it becomes clear that Polly isn’t the only IMP around, and she might not even be the biggest and the baddest. The character designs are a big draw to this book, and artist and co-creator Stephen Molnar imbues each page with a sense of danger, even when the focus is mundane. IMPs are invisible to most people, and it ratchets up a sense of urgency and creeping fear that comes to a head when the IMPs not only become corporal, but finally reveal their motivations. Though Polly has been presented as the main antagonist for most of the book, over the course of the six issues included in this trade paperback she’s shown to be something far more complicated than a boogeyman that goes bump in the night, just as vital to her ecosystem as any person is to theirs. Ultimately, the book is about confronting the demons that live inside each of us, and understanding the impact of trauma and fear. It’s a great read for fans of Clean Room and It Follows, a slightly cerebral monster story with a serious creep factor.