It’s a rare thing to watch a reality in the process of its own formation. It’s like observing a building being created row by row: block by block. But in this case it’s more like seeing a nightmare come together: lurking at the borders of its comics panels but always, always waiting for its inevitable place at the fore.
This creative description of Kris Straub’s horror webcomic Broodhollow Book One: Curious Little Thing is more akin to describing dread: specifically knowing that something terrifying is going to happen to the cartoon characters of Broodhollow, but not being able to do anything about it except watch it with anticipation. However, Broodhollow is much more than that: both with respect to its medium and its storyline.
Kris Straub, who is generally well known for his comedic webcomics series Starslip, Checkerboard Nightmare, chainsawsuit and F Chords works with two distinct traditions with regards to Broodhollow: namely that of the horror genre and the form of the newspaper adventure strip. According to Straub on his Broodhollow Kickstarter page, this project is both his “first color … and digitally painted comic.”  It is still very much a work in progress.
Yet despite a clear lined form and other contemporary electronic artistic elements, it’s very tempting to link Broodhollow to the context of the horror pulp tradition of the mid-1930s or even the horror comics of the late 40s to mid-50s[.] But really, when it comes right down to it, Straub’s webcomic focuses less on the former’s emphasis on torture, spectacle, revenge and even rational solutions to supernatural terrors and gains more from the influence of the works of H.P. Lovecraft: a now-archetypal writer of horror and dark fantasy stories in, ironically enough, such pulp magazines as Weird Tales.
In the case of Straub’s comic, it is the setting of yet another element of pulp–of the newspaper strip–that functions as this deceptively simplistic human reality over which these dark undertones secretly exist. These strips tend to have backgrounds composed of basic shapes, with very simplified cartoon characters having some generally light-hearted, witty and comedic interactions. Even in the case of adventure strips, there is no blood or in the case of superhero strips anything beyond basic and over-exaggerated violence and death: with much of the more graphic aspects dealt with “off-panel,” as it were. In addition, the aesthetic of the webcomic imitates the “look” of old newspaper comic strips: giving it the appearance of being on–or bordered by–yellowed low-grade paper and endowing every daily action with a faded yet basic color scheme. There are even segments in the webcomic where Straub flat-out imitates the form of a newspaper and the period writing one might find in a town of that time in America.
It also bears mentioning that Broodhollow is a series of strips being compiled into one “Chapter” or an entire “Book.” Essentially, it is a process not unlike that of the pulp era when comic strips were being gathered into books before the creation of more original works purposefully made in that medium. However, the differences are clear: these strips are being adapted from electronic origin into print and it also seems as though Kris Straub already planned for Broodhollow to be something larger to begin with.
As for the characters of Broodhollow–such as the erstwhile Encyclopedia Atlantica salesman and protagonist Wadsworth Zane–they are depicted in a cartoon aesthetic similar to what one would expect from 1938: the time when this story is supposed to take place. This was, after all, the period in which many cartoon strip characters such as Disney’s Mickey Mouse, E.C. Segar’s Popeye and Hergé’s Tintin possess the similar over-exaggerated features of beady-eyes, primary coloring and almost geometrically basic shaping.
In fact, Kris Straub in his Blog post “letter” to one of his protagonists from Starslip entitled “Dear Vanderbeam,” states that when he envisioned Broodhollow, he thought of “a cosmic horror adventure … if Tintin went to Innsmouth”: flat-out stating what some of his more direct comics and literary influences actually are. It is also worth noting, aesthetics wise, the clear line style is not merely an example of electronic art. In the third update to his Kickstarter Straub also mentions that “all of Broodhollow — was born from a love I have of the ligne claire age of comics, especially European ones” and citing “a series of comics collected into a book called Bardin the Superrealist by Catalan cartoonist Max” as being responsible for reawakening his interest for ligne claire–or “clean line” comics. Straub even states that Bardin’s influence on Broodhollow’s aesthetics is quite clear.
Essentially, Straub attempts to capture a historic atmosphere or “Spirit of the Times” as best as he can. The choice of this particular date in Straub’s story is not merely one of coincidence. Rather, it is a place in the time of one society where optimism and hope, and pessimism and fear are very much at war with one another.
These two impulses are best embodied in Wadsworth Zane: and from whose perspective Straub’s reader-audience gets to experience the town and setting of Broodhollow. At first, it seems as though Wadsworth has a lot of things going against him coming into what is essentially a horror story. He’s a nervous wreck of a young man with the obsessive-compulsive fear that if he does not close any and all doors, he will let some very bad luck into his life. It is a compulsion that he calls “The Pattern.” Although at first “The Pattern” seems to be merely a psychological oddity or superstition on Wadsworth’s part, it becomes quickly apparent just how ingrained this idea is in his perception of reality: and, really, in the entire comics structure of Broodhollow itself.
Wadsworth’s journey begins with uncertainty. He leaves the certainty of poverty and starvation behind him due to his lack of Encyclopedia sales and he hopes to claim his inheritance from the estate of a late and unknown great-uncle. In order to do so, he must go to Broodhollow: a seemingly quaint and peaceful small town.
However, it becomes very apparent that Wadsworth’s perceptions and fears are going to be sorely tested. Kris Straub does this in a very clever manner. As was mentioned before, Wadsworth and the inhabitants of Broodhollow are portrayed with a very friendly and simplistic cartoon aesthetic. It fulfills what comics artist and scholar Scott McCloud defines as the “cartoon” in his Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art: an “amplification through simplification” or the stripping down an image into its essential shape or meaning. This is done to make the reader-audience relate more to–and identify with–the idea or the character that this image–the cartoon–represents. This concept can be applied to the other examples of cartoon strips mentioned earlier in this article. But what Straub does is he takes that basis of relation and he superimposes that other reality: that dark and twisted world around and eventually over the seemingly placid cartoon setting that he has constructed.
Scott McCloud describes the effects of realistic drawing, or aesthetics made more realistic as tending to defamiliarize or emphasis the “Otherness” within a subject for the reader-audience. This has been a technique used by other comics artists such as Jeff Smith in his comics series Bone.
But whereas Smith utilizes realistic drawing in the background of his world–juxtaposing the cartoon figure of Fone Bone over and in that environment as both a contrast and a way for the reader-audience to experience his alienation and gradual immersion into the world of the Valley, Straub utilizes defamiliarization sparingly: keeping everything within the auspices of the basic elemental shape and the cartoon until a more terrifying event begins to unfold and Wadsworth’s surroundings are–and eventually Wadsworth himself is depicted as–becoming far more stark with subdued shading and infernal coloring against a reality of luminous ghosts and terrifying monsters. It is as though for one moment that finely woven curtain–that veil–of simplicity is torn away and that original reality is slowly or suddenly consumed by the other darker one.
There are many examples of this phenomenon. For instance, what other Broodhollowans view as simple bats become demonic monsters to Wadsworth’s eyes and when Wadsworth seems to find some people taking too much time to get away from the chaos of the bat attack and takes the time to warn them, he realizes that they are not quite the … people that he thought they were.
Wadsworth also begins to see more apparitions from the corner of his eye. In particular, he realizes he’s being followed by a ghost from the Hotel Umbra he’d been staying at. The ghost’s name is Young Maddy and he is told by the hotel manager that she likes to watch people. Maddy is also quite notable for appearing in any space that Wadsworth doesn’t close: even a desk drawer. These are examples of the supernatural world appearing temporarily or on the fringes of Broodhollow’s otherwise peaceful reality. However, there are other moments where these effects become much longer term and the transition from strange yet iconic cartoon sequences change into something far more grimly realistic.
At the same time if the limits of perception are the worst qualities to possess in such a situation, the reverse of these–of knowledge and awareness–are integral survival traits. For instance, the terrifying apparition of the Stitched Man can’t manifest into reality if someone is looking directly at him, while Young Maddy–who turns out to be the ghost of one of his former victims–exists to watch people and the Stitched Man so that he can’t hurt them. In fact, the Stitched Man even flat-out says to Wadsworth that “unlike the others … you see,” thereby accentuating that strength is awareness of and against the limits of perception in the town of Broodhollow. However, Wadsworth’s friend Dr. Klaus Angstrom makes a really interesting point about Wadsworth when he states that “perhaps the Pattern helps you see the unseen.” So it seems that Wadsworth Zane himself, as a result of his seeming compulsion, actually has an advantage in helping him cope and deal with the terrifying supernatural side of Broodhollow …
If only the horror ended there.
In Part II of this article, we will see that Broodhollow is not Straub’s first horror and that some things can only be shared between sister-cities …
 Straub, Kris. “Broodhollow Book 1: Curious Little Thing.” Kickstarter.com. Retrieved 29 July 2013. <http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1795723651/broodhollow-book-1-curious-little-thing>
 Straub, Kris. “Dear Vanderbeam.” Weblog. Kris Straub | humor scientist. N.p. 3 October 2012. Web. 28 July 2013. <http://krisstraub.com/2012/10/03/dear-vanderbeam/>
 Straub, Kris. “Update #3.” “Broodhollow Book 1: Curious Little Thing.” Kickstarter.com. 19 July 2013. Web. 29 July 2013. Message posted to http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1795723651/broodhollow-book-1-curious-little-thing/posts/541738
 Straub, Kris. “Broodhollow Chapter One: Curious Little Thing.” Comic strip. Broodhollow. N.p., 8 Oct. 2012. Web. 20 July 2013. <http://broodhollow.chainsawsuit.com/2012/10/12/mail-call/>
 McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. New York: HarperPerrenial, 1994.30:4-5.
 McCloud, Scott. 32-33:8-11.
 Ibid. 44:2-5.
 Straub, Kris. “Broodhollow Chapter One: Curious Little Thing.” Comic strip. Broodhollow. N.p., 8 Oct. 2012. Web. 20 July 2013. <http://broodhollow.chainsawsuit.com/2012/12/19/bat-fight/>
 Straub, Kris. “Broodhollow Chapter One: Curious Little Thing.” Comic strip. Broodhollow. N.p., 8 Oct. 2012. Web. 20 July 2013. <http://broodhollow.chainsawsuit.com/2012/12/24/shhh/>
 Straub, Kris. “Broodhollow Chapter One: Curious Little Thing.” Comic strip. Broodhollow. N.p., 8 Oct. 2012. Web. 20 July 2013. <http://broodhollow.chainsawsuit.com/2013/05/24/you-curious-little-thing/>
 Straub, Kris. “Broodhollow Chapter One: Curious Little Thing.” Comic strip. Broodhollow. N.p., 8 Oct.2012. Web. 20 July 2013. <http://broodhollow.chainsawsuit.com/2013/03/29/all-coming-back-to-me/panel 8>
 Ibid. <http://broodhollow.chainsawsuit.com/2013/06/19/dust/>
 Ibid. <http://broodhollow.chainsawsuit.com/2013/06/07/in-need/ panel 5>
 Ibid. <http://broodhollow.chainsawsuit.com/2013/07/08/mister-zane/ panel 7>