“The Cull” opens on a rock formation off the coast of a seaside town. Sturdy. Familiar. And ominous. Then we see the rocks against a tableau of horror. Unsettled. Otherworldly. And wonderous. These are the images that sit over the issue. These are the images that make a strong debut.
Written by Kelly Thompson
Illustrated and Colored by Mattia De Iulis
Lettered by Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou
Eisner-winning writer KELLY THOMPSON (BLACK CLOAK) and superstar artist MATTIA DE IULIS (Captain America) team up for their first creator-owned work together!
Something is Killing the Children horror vibes mix with The Goonies-style adventure as five friends set off to shoot a short film on a forbidden rock near their home the summer before they all go their separate ways. But that’s not really why they’re there. One of them has lied. And that lie will change their lives forever.
The art of the flash forward is a tricky one to get down. Show too much, too early and you lose the mystery. Show too little, too late and you make your audience wonder what the point even was. Too many pieces of media use the flash forward as a “get out of a hook” free card, teasing the audience with the excitement they won’t get to for pages, issues, or hours later rather than building a solid introduction and premise. “The Cull” manages to be both a sinner and a saint in this regard and I respect the hell out of its moxie.
As I alluded to at the top, “The Cull” #1 establishes its baseline normalcy on page one, building tension before jumping to “now” in a brief flash forward showing in a gorgeous, horrifying two-page spread kaiju on the beach massacring the townsfolk. From here, the rest of the issue is set “12 hours ago” and introduces us to our main cast: Cleo, Katie, Wade, Will, and Lux. They’re on…well, we have no idea what they’re doing at first. It’s only through context clues and the various conversations that we’re able to piece together why these five people are getting up at 3:30am to go out on the town.
It’s not a pleasant reason.
It took me a couple reads to really appreciate Thompson’s decision to structure the issue this way. I’m so used to overloaded, overstuffed first issues that the paired back environmental storytelling and slow, deliberate release of key information buried in mundane conversations caught me off-guard. Everything one needs to understand who these people are – long time friends – what they’re doing – filming a movie – and why things are going to go real bad, real fast – never go to the mysterious cave on the tide locked rock – is there on the page.
Speaking of the page, De Iulis’ art is heavenly. It feels like it’s grown leaps and bounds from even just a few months ago. A mix of Jamie McKelvie & Esad Ribić, De Iulis’ digitally painted, nearly photographic art is a feast for the eyes and clear as a bell. He takes advantage of the widescreen approach to “The Cull” – subtextually reinforcing the “filmic” aspect of the story – to let the reader really soak in the environments, crafting a strong sense of place and mood. He captures the feeling of early morning, when most of the world is asleep and every sight, every sound, is amplified and made more momentous. Within this, he creates the juxtaposition between the artificial yet still fragile light inside their homes and the darkness outside, tempting in its mysteries, pierced only by the streetlights and the small, temporary illumination of flashlights that only serve to further highlight the danger.
Light is also used to tell us more about the character’s situations. Cleo’s home is bright in an overwhelming way. It is not a change of state but a continuous carving out against the night, leaving undetected as others are out not from sleep but from exhaustion. Wade & Will are bathed in blue and green, sneaking out without breaking the solemn night, rebellious but still conscientious of the sleeping. Katie’s has some lamps on, a temporary break in the state but a natural one. She is at ease and in tune with her household, who is awake with a temporary break as well. And then there’s Lux, whose room is illuminated by a ringed mirror, an attempt to impose direction and control on the one area she feels comfortable in, while the rest of the house is lit by a TV left on, a flickering artificiality of, and not of, the night.Continued below
Bolstering it all is Otsmane-Elhaou’s lettering. No one pushes digital lettering quite like Hassan. He’s always experimenting. Thankfully, this is not a book where he’s doing that; here, he’s refining. Instead of standing out, everything soaks into the page, becoming as natural as breath, always felt, and vital for life, yet only noticed when pointed out. The regular balloons sit within the panels unobtrusively yet have long and varied tails that get out of the way of the characters AND the environments. He’s establishing the rhythm they’re in with their placements while the shapes do the hard work of conveying the small, non-linguistic, human additions we bring to with us when we do, or do not, talk.
I mentioned at the top that “The Cull” is both sinner and saint with its cold open. It is sinner because I found myself disappointed the issue ended with the reveal of the other world in the rock but with no exploration. It is saint because that destruction is not the beginning, but the end, and the real story only revealed itself through the interactions between the five principal characters. This is not a big, giant, monster fight apocalypse story. It is an intimate character drama and a meditation on loss and love.
We opened with a glimpse of high tide. Now it’s the story’s job to slowly raise the waters back around us.
Final Score: 9.5 – “The Cull” shows what three creators working in beautiful harmony can create when pointed in the right direction. It may be mostly introduction but what an engrossing intro it is.