Fearscape is an unusual graphic novel. It tells the story of the otherworldly adventures of a failing author called Henry Henry, who hasn’t published anything more original than an English translation of someone else’s book. However, he’s so convinced of his own abilities (yet so incapable of writing a single creative word of his own) that, on stealing the manuscript of best-selling author Arthur Procter, he finds himself believing that he is the victim and that it was Procter who stole his idea, for a book that Henry had yet to write. With this delusion firmly in place he intends to pass the manuscript off as his own, aided by the fact that Procter appears to be in the late stages of dementia.
It’s at this point that we’re introduced to the Fearscape, a parallel fantasy realm that exists alongside our own. A mythological Muse appears to Henry, mistaking him for Arthur on account of the fact that he’s in possession of the manuscript. She approaches Henry to fulfil a once-in-a-generation mission to rid the Fearscape of humanity’s greatest fear, manifested as a hideous monster, in return for becoming his generation’s greatest writer. Naturally, it’s an offer he can’t refuse.
Undoubtedly the best thing about the book is that it’s narrated by Henry himself. Not only is he deeply unreliable (though clever tricks are used to expose his untruths, such as not quite covering the other characters’ speech bubbles with his own versions of events), he’s also deeply critical of the way writers use writerly tricks to get plots, characters and narration moving in the way they want them to. The comedy in all of this is that, as he’s complaining about it, he’s often doing exactly the same thing himself. While he builds himself as a tragic hero whose greatness is squashed by editors, agents and other writers, the book itself is exposing him as a selfish twit.
It’s beautifully done, to the extent that it makes the book a better read than the story itself, which at time feels somewhat clumsily draped over this exquisite framework of self-referential magic.
The artwork fits the story well. The limited palette and watercolour-like backdrops, over inked art, gives it the feel of something that Vertigo might have put out in the 1990s — something that’s clearly influenced the book as a whole. As someone whose love of comics blossomed in this era, Fearscape is simultaneously modern, post-modern, and a step back thirty years to a time when comics were heading in extraordinary directions that people hadn’t seen before. This modern take on the genre is an equally fascinating read.