First, that The Wake is simply too stuffed full of interesting things to talk about that I couldn’t possibly cover them all in the few hundred words I have, and second, that all I really wanted to talk about was the colouring.
Colourists get so little attention in the comic book world, yet their contribution is staggering and undeniable. What Matt Hollingsworth brings to The Wake (written and pencilled by Scott Snyder and Sean Murphy respectively) draws out many of the themes of the book and lays them right on the page, hidden in plain sight. What’s more, The Wake is a book that illustrates the different effects colour can have excellently by neatly dividing itself into two parts - the first horror-inflected and the second full of high-stakes adventure.
At this point I’d like to say that The Wake is a book that really benefits from being read cold and with little knowledge of the twists and surprises that are waiting.
Unfortunately that makes it pretty hard to talk about without giving it all away. So I urge you, if you don’t want the surprises ruined for you, stop reading now and go read the book - you have been warned.
In Part One, Dr Lee Archer is brought to an underwater oil rig to investigate a mysterious and, it turns out, deadly, mer-creature. This venture ends in blood and destruction as the mer escapes and slaughters most of the people in the submarine base, summoning one of its very big cousins to finish the job.
Moody, claustrophobic and dark both in tone and subject matter, these first chapters of The Wake take their cue from suspense filled horrors such as Alien or The Deep. Hollingsworth colours appropriately, with thick black guttering and backgrounds, moody blues and queasy yellows and greens. The whole palette is knocked back, lending the entire sequence a hazy, twilight look. This choice ensures that the bleakness of the opening of the book isn’t hamstrung by anything too vibrant.
Not only that, but the lack of vibrancy tells the reader from the outset that this isn’t going to be a happy story; there’s no sense of hope in this colouring, and it foreshadows the outcome without Snyder or Murphy having to telegraph it in the narrative itself.
The only brightness in Part One comes from technological lighting and computer panels, a reminder that, far down in the water, our technology is the only thing that keeps us safe. The human characters find themselves so vulnerable in the dark ocean; most often coloured in oranges and reds. The lights of the ships and the station itself, one presumes, give the ocean a colour palette both bloody and crepuscular; both things which bring to mind death and danger, as well as a winding down or fading out.
The end of Part One finds Archer trapped in the station and, the readers assumes, slowly dying while the mer-creatures begin their attack on the rest of the world - a colour range that invokes thoughts of ending can’t be any more appropriate.
Part Two of The Wake, while maintaining unity as a whole, could not be more different in tone and feeling.
The blues, yellows and reds are still here, but now they’ve been dialled up and given a new brightness. Narratively we’ve moved some time into the future; the icecaps have been melted by the mers and the sea level has risen, flooding the majority of the world’s landmasses.
The brightness of the colours is an indicator in the shift in the story, it tells us that the claustrophobic and fatalistic terror of the first chapters are gone, and we’ve now moved into what could best be described as a post-apocalyptic adventure story. The Wake now follows Leeward and her dolphin companion on a quest for answers, chased by Governess Vivienne’s soldiers in a bid to maintain their own sense of order and power.
As Leeward runs, she finds herself with a group of marauders and pirates led by Captain Mary. The amount of crazy concepts and cool ideas Snyder and Murphy throw at the reader in this half of the books is incredible. From the pillar of ice that Governess Vivienne calls home to Captain Mary’s robotic parrot, there are more cool ideas in this one book than most comic creators come up with in a lifetime.
Despite the bright neon in which Part Two is told, this is still a world that is winding down and under threat. The colour palette stays largely autumnal, with orange and yellow skies filling the backgrounds. Not only does this remind us of the precarious balance the world is currently in, but the yellow skies indicate to the reader just how wrong this future world has become. Wrong, but not without its benefits seems to be what the colours are saying, as the pirates Leeward meets are most often painted onto the deep orange backgrounds. Orange comes to signify adventure as well as danger in this new world, just as icy blue comes to represent the old world exemplified not only by Governess Vivienne and her men, but also the past from which Leeward seeks her answers.
Hollingsworth took inspiration for his colouring on The Wake from the Japanese woodblock prints of Hiroshi Yoshida. Those delicate colours give the book a lightness that is well-suited to Sean Murphy’s pin-sharp line work. It also gives the book a connection to a traditional, old-world style, one which has long been associated with delicacy and a time gone by.
By the end of The Wake, a new sort of peace is discovered. Hollingsworth finished his colouring with a final page, in which he pulls some of the offending neon out of the sky and lightens the deep oranges to a lighter yellow. The final page shifts from sunset to sunrise, with a new day dawning.
The colouring of this book is not only a huge element of what makes it so visually stunning, but an essential part of why it is such an exciting and compelling read. Frustrating, as well - because even at 250-odd pages, I’m left wanting more.