The Genre-Hopping Movie Magic Of Snyder And Murphy’s ‘The Wake’
When I spoke to Scott Snyder and Sean Murphy about their Vertigo series The Wake last April, about a month before the first issue’s release, we talked quite a bit about what types of movies influenced it. Several titles of horror movies and movies based around ocean settings came up: The Thing, Jaws, The Abyss. But we barely scratched the surface.
One of the things The Wake does so, so well is it constantly upends audience expectations. One way it does that, issue by issue, the genre seems to change. It isn’t just horror. That’s the easiest way to categorize it, but Snyder and Murphy work within the established tropes of multiple genres to, for lack of a better word, toy with the audience. What they’re doing goes beyond homage to film. It sets an expectation in the reader’s mind so that, when the big surprise comes, it’s all the more jarring. As the series digs into its second half, here’s a quick — and slightly spoilery — rundown of all the touchstones the series has hit so far.
Issue 1: Action
The issue that kicks off The Wake puts readers off balance from the get-go. A series that was promoted as a claustrophobic, underwater horror tale opens up by treating its protagonist, Lee Archer, like Rambo, with a Homeland Security representative coming down to meet her in a helicopter to ask her to join a task force with an urgent mission. The DHS agent, Cruz, even mentions her “history” with the agency. She has a reputation as a rebel. Once she meets the team, it’s full of larger-than-life personalities and her old boss, with whom she has capital-I issues. The visuals are largely about helicopters and pink-hued sunsets. It looks and feels like Predator. It’s only as the issue ends that it shifts into a more recognizable horror story.
Issue 2: Psychological Horror
The Wake’s second issue changes the recipe in a couple ways. First, it takes Lee, who felt a little bit like Rambo III Rambo and makes her First Blood Rambo. Or more accurately, it makes her the lead character from Jacob’s Ladder. Her trauma may not have come from war, but she’s got immense regrets involving her son. She’s riddled with guilt about almost never seeing her son, and over the death of her father, to the point she has hallucinations about it. So are others on the station. There’s a catalyst. It all ties into the mythology of the creature the team is holding in its underwater fortress, the basis for sirens and mermaids. It’s the classic uncontainable prisoner story, but Snyder and Murphy skip over the story beats we all know and jump straight to the monster getting out. They accelerate the storytelling to turbo.
Issue 3: Disaster
I’ve told some friends that The Wake seamlessly transitions from Alien to Aliens. What’s so crazy about it is that it does it in one issue. This issue not only has members of the crew of the station systematically being wiped out by the just-released monster, but it also has the introduction of a whole universe of these things by the final page. Murphy’s art this issue does a great job of evoking claustrophobic horror films—Deep Blue Sea, even the first Resident Evil movie—as water fills up seemingly shrinking rooms as the team runs out of options. Matt Hollingsworth colors add a lot as well, with dark blue hues and deep blacks in the background. The whole team nails the shorthand for everything just plain being f**ked.
Issue 4: The Underdog/Escape Story
The transition from the third to the fourth issues of The Wake is probably the most subtle in terms of the storytelling shift, as it finds the lead characters still trying to figure out how to deal with the increasingly dire situation in which they find themselves. The difference is they nearly figure a way out and discover that the monsters, which had up to here seemed invulnerable, can be hurt. All the characters get great moments of defiance and/or to display their ingenuity. For instance, Meeks, the character who looks kind of like The Vulture, jams a middle finger up in the window at one of the monsters. It all leads the audience in the direction of believing the the protagonists could actually overcome the odds and survive as in, say, The Poseidon Adventure. But then the series takes another turn.
Issue 5: Giant Monsters/Kaiju
The notion of the unstoppable force is right there in The Wake from page one. Clearly, something changes Earth’s entire landscape. But Snyder and Murphy do an amazing job of giving the reader hope for, at the very least, Archer. It’s only when a huge version of the sea monster arises that that sense of inevitability really congeals. That’s when it becomes clear The Wake’s first half is a tragedy. Archer and the rest valiantly fight the odds, and earn a Pyrrhic victory with their sacrifice—one of the great themes of giant monster movies is human bravery in service of causes that are sometimes just plain impossible. The way the issue closes the book on Archer’s story is a compelling act break, and it leads into a huge shift.
Issue 6: The Post-Apocalypse
The first issue of The Wake’s second half puts the action in a good version of Waterworld or a more watery Mad Max. It’s a world we’ve seen glimpses of in other issues, but we, once again, get lots of movie-savvy shorthand for what we’re seeing. An altered map of Earth, an old radio that barely works and that the people of the future don’t really understand, a wholly changed societal structure, desperate people who live in constant fear. (Also, Murphy slipped in the TaleSpin plane, which, while not a reference to anything post-apocalyptic, is really cool) The world is meticulously set up and built in just a few page, and then Snyder and Murphy flip the table on us again, because from the looks of it, issue 7 will be a ghost story.
I can’t wait.