Nailbiter has a delightfully gruesome cover, setting the reader up for dark and bloody pages eliciting visceral body horror reactions. The preview pages kept its promise, introducing a truly grotesque serial killer m.o.
Text: Buckaroo Butcher #16. Edward Charles Warren. Warren’s modus operandi was to kidnap innocent men and women who had the habit of chewing their fingernails. Warren would keep them captive until his victim’s nails grew back, and then chew their fingers down to the bone before ultimately killing them. Suspected of forty-six deaths in California alone, this particular appetite had the press give Warren the nickname of the -(cont. on next card)
Those of us who live for gory comics, nausea-inducing violence, and psychological trauma were more than just a little bit excited. Personally, I was hoping for the kind of nightmares that wake you up screaming and sweating. That’s not what Nailbiter is. Those who have compared it to Twin Peaks are not far off base— and frankly if that isn’t the intention of the creators (Joshua Williamson, Captain Midnight, Ghosted, and Mike Henderson, Masks & Mobsters, TMNT) I will eat my variant cover. There are the obvious setting similarities, a small and sleepy town in the Pacific Northwest where everyone seems to be hiding something, a similarity with which we are confronted almost immediately.
Was I disappointed? Maybe, for a minute. I turned each page eagerly looking for the really bloody stuff, so I got through the narrative pretty quickly. Not that bloody stuff wasn’t present, and in fact their pacing allowed some of the most gruesome pieces to contrast delightfully with the mundane. In this case, the expectation is what damaged my first-reading experience. Had this series been advertised as Buckaroo, a creepy small-town horror drama, my first read through would have been one of excitement and delight. The first issues are very exposition-driven, which is to be expected at the beginning of any series, but they don’t lack for narrative—or even shock value, as long as the reader’s “shock” can be at plot points rather than hideously violent acts (of which, admittedly, there are a few). To take the comparison of Nailbiter to Twin Peaks a step further, I would argue that both narratives use the uncanny to discuss the social construct of coping with death. The small town setting is one with which most Americans are familiar. Those words, in fact, “small town,” evoke more than geographical size or population numbers, they evoke the exact setting of Nailbiter, down to the diner at which our protagonist arrives. The diner, in fact, looks so eerily similar to every diner in every TV show and Rockwell painting that it seems unreal, and by extension otherworldly.
It is within this overwhelmingly familiar setting that our characters must navigate not death or mortality but the effects of those things on their society. One of the beautiful things about humanity is the way that we react to the idea that we are consciousnesses temporarily occupying (or permanently tied to) bodies made of meat and bone: mostly, denial. Buckaroo is not only a respectable small town, but quite frankly, people need to be able to have lives—murderers or not. Murder isn’t just an act of violence or a tragedy, it’s a way of marking a person, and as we each inhabit society and must exist within it to some degree, the characters have to cope with their relationship to murder. Each person does this in a different way. Some are in denial, some are depressed. One man’s reaction to his mark is to open the world’s first murder-themed novelty store. Reminders of death and mortality constantly enter the narrative, but in many ways those who interact with them remain unaffected.
This narrative is a much slower burn than my initial expectations, but it’s got a killer hook (pardon the pun) and is constantly conscious of its position in the realm of campy thrillers. Each serial killer has a schtick, some of them gruesome (the titular Nailbiter), some of them more ludicrous, and there are 16 of them. From a firm seat within these various categories (campy, thriller, slasher, comic) which are rarely taken seriously, Williamson and Henderson have created a work that demands attention. Nailbiter #2 will hit your local comic shop on Wednesday, June 4.