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Elsie Hooper by Robert Krzykowski, reviewed by Kelly J Cooper

It's late. It's dark. Your tiny hometown seems deserted and beautiful and a little spooky. The wonder of it seeps into your bones. So what do you do? If you're Robert D. Krzykowski, you set a horror movie there. And while you're storyboarding the movie, you might was well make the storyboards nice and neat and publish them as a scary little horror comic.

Appearing regularly in the UMass Daily Collegian (University of Massachusetts Amherst), and published on the web every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, the story follows a man named Ridley Hooper who has lost his little sister Elsie – or rather, she was taken from him. We aren't given the details; the time immediately preceding her disappearance is left vague. Ridley is following his instincts, searching for Elsie while tall, thin monstrosities dubbed shadowmen stalk him. His sister is all the family Ridley has left, and he's not going to give her up without a fight.

Krzykowski uses a standard comic strip format with occasional over-sized (a few double-sized and one triple-sized) strips. His strips range from one panel to upwards of seven or eight panels, and his panel configuration isn't always linear. The strip is created entirely by hand in black and white, and it shows... in that good way. The organic craftsmanship is very apparent, and it shines: there is something about being able to see every line and every marker stroke that adds to the nature of the subject matter. The lettering is likewise clearly hand-done, but it's generally readable, and also enhances the feel of the story; the strip wouldn't 'read' nearly as good with digital lettering.

Shading and negative space is also used very effectively – the result being a very gritty 'darkness' which adds even more to the atmosphere of tension, suspense, and of course, horror. Everything from individual bricks in a wall to trees in a forest to power tools in a shed is imbued with a natural sense of depth and substance from the shading work. Even the gore – both human and shadowman – is convincingly crafted.

The art appears simple but when you break it down into its components, you realize that there's a surprising amount of complexity there. The characters are stylized – look close and you'll see that their eyes are mostly represented by white space. No one has a nose. Not even when one character has her nose broken do we see much nasal definition. Their bodies are in proportion, but there's very little muscle definition – just lots of straight lines. And just like the hand-drawn feel, the simplicity of the art is an asset to the story, not a hindrance.

The simplicity magnifies the horror of what's happening just as the smallness of the town magnifies the significance of the events happening there. A small town, a safe place, and it's been invaded and transformed into something menacing. Is this a mysterious attack on just one town? Or the beginning of a larger invasion? (Is it small, or larger than it appears?) There are things in the darkness. Streetlights provide tight illumination, but do not shed light on the deep shadows. To add more detail would only slow the strip down.

The writing is solid. This is a scary story and while it has a few familiar elements (like civilization gone missing and a lone man trying to make a difference), Krzykowski manages to avoid clichés with surprising ease. The shadowmen are entirely of his imagination and we have no idea what their motivations or capabilities might be.

Like any good horrorist, the creator is deliberately stingy when it comes to exposition, revealing just enough to maintain suspense – and with each revelation usually generating new questions. One notable scene has Ridley looking at the contents of his wallet and taking moment of reflection: this is an excellent way for Krzykowski to provide some insight into the character without using too much backstory. In a similar fashion, he also gradually reveals background on Ridley and Elsie, as well as some shadowman history, without once overburdening the story.

As the plot moves forward, there is a natural progression to the escalation of violence. Ridley doesn't have the instinct for killing. But he's determined, out of love for his sister. He starts with a gun. Later he throws up after having to kill one creature without a weapon. Next he goes berserk on another of the creatures.

The archives provide a link to every strip, in sequence. The strips are numbered but not dated. There are four chapters and just over one hundred strips available.

Krzykowski communicates with casual readers through his news blog on main page, but news does not appear to be archived. He is also an active participant in the Elsie Hooper forum (where there are lots of details about how Krzykowski makes the comic). It'd be nice if we could look at past news items for a sense of how both the comic and the creator have developed. And the material presented in the forums about how the strip came to be and how it is created could be turned into one or more essays and placed on the main site for those who aren't accustomed to forum reading. They might also benefit curious neophytes looking for guidance.

Krzykowski's Elsie Hooper is a horror comic created by a man who clearly loves the genre. There are many moments that recall or pay tribute to many of the better films out there without ever simply ripping them off. This dark love of his shines through the work, too.

The comic feels creepy – all ominous and pregnant with impending doom. Krzykowski is doing an excellent job of laying out a terrifying story, providing glimpses of the full pattern in well-executed little chunks, teasing readers with hints of what might be and what might've been while quietly moving the whole suspenseful thing forward. A solid thriller, Elsie Hooper will be a gripping and tense, popcorn-chomping journey to its conclusion.