Review: The Wake by Scott Snyder and Sean Murphy (2014)

The Wake

The Wake
Vertigo, 2014 (collecting material from 2013-2014)
Writer: Scott Snyder
Artist: Sean Murphy

Review by N Emmett.

A young marine biologist named Lee Archer is roped into a shady assignment in an illegal undersea rig. She is tasked with studying a bizarre specimen being held there: from the midsection down it has the tail of a fish, but its upper portion resembles a finned humanoid. Was this the inspiration for the mermaid of legend?

It soon turns out that the captured “Mer” is not the only member of its species to live in the area. When the rig finds itself under attack from an entire shoal of the creatures, Lee and her comrades must act fast to avoid perishing at the depths of the ocean.

The Wake collects all ten issues of the Vertigo series by Scott Snyder and Sean Murphy, a remarkably thoughtful and ambitious entry in the attacking-monster genre. The central figures of the Mers have a number of precursors, from Lovecraft’s Deep Ones to the Creature from the Black Lagoon, but Snyder has a specific legendary being in mind: the siren.

wake1Where the sirens of Homer tempted sailors to their doom through enchanting songs, the creatures in The Wake produce a hallucinogenic toxin. When the captive Mer escapes, Lee sees it not as a monstrous fish-man but as her beloved son. It is a simple concept, but one which does a neat job of transporting a figure from ancient literature into a modern science fiction adventure. An old monster is suddenly fresh again.

The initial undersea-Alien premise runs its course halfway through, and the comic suddenly swings away from Ridley Scott and towards J.G. Ballard. The story jumps forward two hundred years, when the Mers have flooded vast quantities of the Earth with melted polar ice; a young woman named Leeward becomes our new guide in a strange new world where drug dealers traffic Mer toxin and pirates with mechanical parrots sail beneath the waves.

The characters at the centre of this epic tale are a familiar lot: The Wake reintroduces us to old friends such as the sensitive researcher who has an anecdote for every occasion and the scuzzball who likes to rant about liberals. Given that the undersea pirates of the twenty-third century are wake2depicted wearing seventeenth-century dress, because that’s how we imagine pirates dressing, it is safe to say that the comic is unafraid to fall back on stereotypical concepts.

But even when relying on well-worn plot elements, Snyder’s approach to storytelling is always playful. Splitting up the main narrative are short glimpses of various incidents from across the timeline of The Wake: scenes of cavemen discovering futuristic weapons or a blue-haired girl watching the moon explode. These seem meaningless at first, but start to make sense as all the pieces fall into place; The Wake is certainly a comic which will reward additional readings.

Admittedly, all this chronological fiddling gives the impression that the story has more to say than it actually does. Snyder spends a good deal of the final chapter musing about the human condition but, regrettably, comes up with little of significance. Underneath all of its narrative experimentation, The wake4Wake is yet another fictionalised version of the ancient alien theory that has been recycled by Erich von Daniken and his ilk for decades.

That said, the comic has ace up its sleeve in terms of concept. While so many of the countless other aliens-build-the-pyramids sagas trade on a lack of imagination on the part of the audience, The Wake is fuelled by an infectious curiosity about the world.

As the characters come to terms with their situation, they chew over a varied range of comparison points. Snyder’s scripts include discussions of the “aquatic ape” hypothesis that mankind is descended from an amphibious primate; a folktale of a mermaid caught in a well; the 52-hertz whale, a marine specimen which is periodically recorded singing to itself; and the origin of the nursery rhyme “row, row, row your boat”.

Monster movies were founded on a bedrock of anti-intellectualism, the genre’s favourite themes being destruction of the unknown and mistrust of scientific progress. The Wake, by contrast, is rooted in a desire to explore the world, to go out and find answers, to think about what we are capable of.

wake3Sean Murphy’s artwork is a good match for Snyder’s writing. His characters tend to look similar, sharing two stock face designs (one pretty, one haggard) and so our attention is instead drawn to the intricate settings that surround the figures. Murphy creates cramped oil rigs, murky undersea vistas, wide meadows of nostalgic memory, and a seafaring world of the future. Credit is also due to colourist Matt Hollingsworth, who shows a knack for using limited palettes to full effect. Little touches, such as the splash of lurid green when the first Mer appears, or the fact that the yellow sky and blue waters of the flooded future-world mirror the heroine’s colour scheme, help to make the artwork just the bit more sumptuous.

The Wake may unravel a little towards the end, but it is hard to fault the level of ambition shown by what is ostensibly another monsters-on-the-loose runaround. Appropriately enough for its undersea setting, there is a good deal to explore below the surface.