I think there should be more Christmas themed horror comics. What’s better than seeing an unspoiled field of snow suddenly drenched red? Or green if you’re going with “kid friendly alien/robot blood.” Clearly someone got the memo this year because in addition to the brilliant “The Deviant,” the various horror anthologies are getting in on the game. Let’s take that “Slay Ride” and see just how much stuff is in the nightmares of Stine’s Christmas.
Written by R. L. Stine
Illustrated by Pius Bak
Colored by Francesco Segala
Lettered by Jim Campbell
If you dare, get into the sinister spirit of the season and join The Nightmare Keeper for a demented Saint Nick story… one who decks the halls with holiday horror, crafting a very merry macabre Christmas unlike any other!
As malls continue to die, a down-and-out former mall Santa named Heinrick Fiddler’s rage turns to madness, and he’s dead-set on making sure department store shopping isn’t the only thing that’s deceased.
Treasured Fear Street and Goosebumps author R.L. Stine is joined by Bram Stoker Award-nominated artist Pius Bak (Eat the Rich) for another tale straight from your nightmares!
I want to like “Stuff of Nightmares: Slay Ride” more than I do. It’s got all the right elements to make for a good holiday horror story, twisting familiar situations to make them scary and silly at the same time. It’s really where Stine shines as a writer, in that strange liminal space between the truly unsettling and the over-the-top goofiness. The Nightmare Keeper, a dark riff on the titular Storyteller from “Jim Henson’s The Storyteller,” is a fun narrator and Santa is just the right level of unhinged, with his sac full of rats, a chainsaw in hand, and a penchant for stealing little kids’ gifts.
I’m actually glad “Slay Ride” leans more towards the uncomfortably comedic. It helps set it apart from the other horror books coming out now. It’s not the funniest book out there, or even full of that many jokes, but I found myself chuckling at how serious the comic takes these increasingly ridiculous situations. The push and pull of the slowly escalating tension is offset by the absurdity of a mall santa being fired and replying “Oh my. Oh my…No Santa? No Santaland?” before completely losing it and deciding No. It is I who should get gifts from the children.
However, “Slay Ride” struggles to make a truly compelling story. Pacing issues plague the comic, like the choice to have the Nightmare Keeper appear on page 4 instead of truly framing the whole story, and the subplot with the mall cop bloats the comic, mostly because he’s about as interesting as a wet sandwich. Which, in some ways detracts from the simplicity of “Slay Ride’s” inspirations, and in others are perfectly in line with their protagonists. He’s not the protagonist though. That’s the Santa character. Fiddler is the one who has a traditional EC Comic protagonist arc, even if the morality play aspect is somewhat dropped.
Stine’s writing in “Slay Ride” clearly evokes such horror anthologies of yore, with dialog that sounds like it fell right out of the 50s – melodramatic, concerned with one-liners, stating the obvious at every turn – mixed with his trademarked humor, which does work more often than not – “Mr. Guinness will calm my nerves. Santa is only human.” Unfortunately, this verbal overacting doesn’t mesh well with Bak’s art, which is more subdued and better tailored to a slow burn horror story like “Eat the Rich.” The writing either needed to tone it down or the art needed to really lean into the madness. Instead, the muddy middle prevailed.
Bak also struggles with picking the right face for the right situation. He gets the right angle and panel composition but there’s often a mismatch between the mood of the scene and the expressions being conveyed. Most panels with Mall Cop, particularly during the not quite sex scene, struggle with this, though the biggest offender I noticed was when Santa is supposed to be reveling in his rampage and instead looks concerned. If that’s supposed to be insight into an inner conflict, it’s not brought back up or dwelled on nearly long enough to convey that properly.Continued below
Moreover, as I said, the pacing is all over the place. It’s a breathless comic that’s not particularly dense, once again failing to work as a modern comic or a throwback, more scary or more funny. It’s only a little bit though, like there could have been one or two additional panels thrown in, or a page here or there, and it would have smoothed the whole thing out. It’s jerky, reading “Slay Ride.”
I don’t want to knock Bak too much. I actually like a lot of what he does here. The surreal moments are some of the strongest parts of the comic and the use of thick, solid ink for the shadows are very effective. I also really appreciate how the panels set Fiddler’s scenes apart from the rest of the comic: jagged, floating, and irregularly shaped. Moreover, I think my bigger issue is with Segala’s coloring. Put simply, the two just don’t gel.
Segala’s coloring is too washed out, like it’s been airbrushed onto the story. It lightens the tone when what was needed was something harsher and/or goofier. Get garish, lean into the heightened nature of it all. Plus there are plenty of times when the coloring muddles the artwork by blurring details. I did love the panel where Mall Cop walks into the bar full of santas. Great reveal, great use of a limited set of colors with minimal gradients, excellent tone setting.
For all my knocks, Segala does a fantastic job of making sure there’s always depth to the panels he’s coloring. That santa panel is a perfect example of breaking up the foreground, midground, and background while keeping the composition whole. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least mention Jim Campbell, who does an admirable job keeping the flow of the comic with his lettering. It’s nothing too fancy but the steady hand helps keep the ship afloat.
You wanna know what really hurt the comic, though? The absolutely stellar main cover by Francesco Francavila. If you’re going to get one of comics’ masters of grand guignol to do a cover, you’d best be able to match his intensity. Sadly, “Slay Ride” falls short in that regard, hewing close enough to his aesthetics to invite comparison without capturing the menace and intensity.
Final Score: 6.2. Competent though rife with mismatched creatives and choices, you could have a far worse time than “Slay Ride.” It’s fun and features Santa with a chainsaw and a bag of rats. Just ignore Mall Cop.