Into The Dark Woods
Tripwire’s contributing writer Tim Hayes takes a look at 2000AD’s Thistlebone by TC Eglington and Simon Davis…
Writer: TC Eglington
Artist: Simon Davis
Folk horror works best when it’s thick with atmosphere and mood, so Thistlebone has a head start: it’s illustrated by Simon Davis, whose painted art is consistently among the most singular and easily recognisable comics work on the 2000AD roster, visuals that have an atmosphere and mood particular to him. Folk horror is also an evergreen genre, always nagging at the edges of the present day with the return of hidden pasts, forgotten religions, or buried secrets. Thistlebone has all of those too, plus an interest in cults and false information and unwise leaders, a recurrent topic for historical fiction but hardly out of the spotlight right now.
This first Thistlebone story appeared in 2000AD during 2019, not long after Davis had reached the end of a stint illustrating Slaine stories set in the mystic past for writer Pat Mills, and just before he stepped back from comics to focus on his fine arts work for a period. Whether or not Thistlebone was too good an opportunity to miss before the break, it gave him the chance to draw a story set in present-day rural Britain and tackle a fresh artistic environment after his extensive work on the pagan past of Albion, barring one very Slaine-like full page image near Thistlebone‘s end. TC Eglington’s story centres on two young women: Seema, an author writing a book about the cult which once operated in the town of Harrowvale somewhere in the English countryside (England so the comic claims – the dialogue could suggest somewhere further north); and Avril, who as a child was once the group’s prisoner before escaping. The cult leaders preached divinity through savagery and invoked Thistlebone, a mythical animalistic spirit said to have lurked in the dark woods nearby. Seema takes Avril back to the scene of her childhood abduction, but once there Avril seems to be succumbing to PTSD flashbacks and hallucinations about the forces in the woods – unless of course Thistlebone is real…
Davis doesn’t change his core art style for Thistlebone, but then he doesn’t need to. The story’s focus on characters’ faces caught in flashes of anger or fright suits the aspects of his painting that have made him the current Vice President of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters, while a tale following those individuals into deep woods means the backgrounds can be full of shadows and visible brush strokes, vivid greens and pungent earthy colours, a gift to a portraitist with Davis’s dexterity. Thistlebone‘s figures are often glimpsed in the distance as angular shapes with Avril in her red coat, that traditional symbol of a little girl lost, while Davis’s regular tactic of scratch marks in the paint itself creates a scuffed-up feel that suits the edge-of-town setting, a rural landscape of things that get muddy quickly. Not that the faces are entirely realistic either, since Davis’s portraiture involves a good deal of personal interpretation: just as the artist has done in other stories he puts splashes of colour onto the features, most drastically with Avril herself who is explicitly blue-skinned for much of the story, as if her traumatic pagan experience had left her with woad seeped into her tissues. Davis did something similar when he illustrated Sinister Dexter, but with Avril the colouration seems like a purely visual sign of how she now sees herself.
This first Thistlebone tale is a slim narrative, a brisk 50 pages of events contained within a couple of nights with the characters acting as talking heads rendered in Davis’s soft brush strokes, and there is a limit to how much actually happens as Seema and Avril poke around locations where bad things took place. But if it was a trial balloon for a possible new 2000AD regular series then it passed the test, since a sequel is running in the weekly comic now, with Eglington and Davis venturing back into the woods.