2 out of 5
I’m going to blame the general failings of Grant Morrison’s and Alex Child’s Proctor Valley Road miniseries on one, main villain: cross-medium adaptation. Morrison had signed a deal with NBCUniversal’s “UCP Graphic” division in 2018, which had its eye on publishing properties which – reading into the hype mumbo-jumbo of press statements – could easily be transitioned to movies or TV. This, to me, means writing for those cross-mediums, which is often a recipe for “this would be better as an X”-type materials, where X is whatever format is the imagined final form of the property.
Without knowing the exact split on writing duties here between Morrison and Child, that the latter is a TV writer is rather suggestive; that the book feel written exclusively for television – to me – confirms that suggestion. Proctor Valley Road has a story and characters that make sense on a screen, but are not well represented in comic form, at all.
Very specific to this equation – when a comic is written for a moving-image format – is the amount of assumptions it puts on the reader. Things that could be cued more easily with montage, or music, or casting – an actor immediately imbuing a role with something specific via their presence – have to be logically interpreted and shown in a different way when on the printed page. This problem hangs mightily over the whole series, from issue one and on: you can imagine our 4-girl lead cast getting introduced with sassy title cards and theme songs and an actor who puts on the right attitude to tell you all you need to know, but we need a bit more of a nudge than that in the comic; instead, we’re just dumped right in to being all palsy with these girls, like we know them and care about them. We don’t, and we don’t. Artist Naomi Franquiz makes up for as much of that as possible with character designs, but the acting required to keep up with the script – which is insanely kneejerk in pacing, hardly bothering to transition from scene to scene, hurried explanation to hurried explanation, panel to panel – is simply impossible; everyone comes across as the most overblown, cookie-cutter version of “the smart one,” “the scaredy-cat one,” and etc.
The other big assumption here is that we know what Proctor Valley Road is. Seems rather important to set this up, given the title, but this is a real life spook spot with some lore attached, and, yes, it’s given a spotlight in a cold open sequence, but it’s not given any due setup thereafter: it’s just assumed that we understand that this road is the most frightening thing in town, and everyone avoids it. As such, it’s a “big deal” for the plot to center around our four leads offering paid ‘tours’ of the road, in order to earn money for the Janis Joplin concert. (Because it’s the 70s – a further nod to TV shorthand being that Joplin, and the most casual glances at racism and sexism, are our signposts of the times.) But there’s no indication of why this is a big deal – the road seems easily accessible, and besides there having been a recent death there, as seen in the cold open, what’s the hullaballoo? It exists somewhere outside of the book, in a title sequence dreamed up by a TV exec that could flash newspaper headlines and explain it all before the show – sorry, comic – begins.
After the girls’ first spook tour, things go wrong, some boys disappear, and they have to solve a mystery regarding the history of the road. A valid premise, completely underserved by a lack of establishing any of the primary things – character, story. The speed with which Morrison and Child zoom through the various ghost encounters and “explanations” and stereotypical teen bonding and drama bits and pieces is rather embarrassing; Child writing alone might have an excuse, coming from a TV background, but Morrison should’ve been able to buffer that enough, using his skills at maximizing story content – at his best, Grant knows what to leave to the imagination, and what to include on the page – to smooth this out.
The saving graces are visual ones. Franquiz is part of the Boom school of all ages / teen-geared content – round-faced characters, slightly more stylized and cartoonish – but she puts a lot of detail into her character design, and has a great sense of what requires more solidity in her linework versus her looser, sketchier lines. It’s entirely possible that her interpretation of the script is what led to the pacing issues, but I’m choosing to place that squarely on the writers; so setting aside how choppy the panel-to-panel flow is, individual panels – and the choreography within those panels – are well designed for the format. I went back and forth on how I felt about the book’s tone, which feels amped up to be “edgy” – more swears, more blood. Having looked at Franquiz’s work on a Harrow County book, and considering select images here, I think her style applies well to spooks and whatnot, but when things are supposed to be more directly aggressive – more violent, more threatening – the images are maybe a bit too “soft” to support that.
Colorist Tamra Bonvillain comes across as the biggest win here: Boom, again, seems to have something of a house style in terms of palette for its younger readers stuff, and PVR’s pastel-tinged hues tap into that. But Tamra has done something here to apply some type of filter to it (not an actual filter, just how I’m perceiving the changeup to that more typical range of colors): where the 70s setting and horror vibe are either lacking or not communicated effectively in the script or art, Bonvillain’s colors manage to suggest it all. From page one, you do get a sense of these things, just from the tone of the colors. Proctor Valley Road is not scary or meaningful in the story, but the setting carries weight thanks to the mood as suggested by Tamra in those scenes.
So the book, at the very least, is good to look at, and the flip-side of the knock to the pacing and immersion of the story caused by how much stuff Grant and Alex try to jam onto each page… is that it gives us infinitely more scenes and setups to appreciate Franquiz’s and Bonvillain’s work. And since it is a visual medium, that’s actually a significant, positive impact on the readability of the series.