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NUMB: Knocking on Death's Door

Written by Scary Cleve on Monday, August 15 2016 and posted in Reviews

NUMB: Knocking on Death's Door

Life and Death in a phantasmagoria.

Source: Numb

Title Screen - Numb


"Numb" created by Niina Salmelin


"The boundaries between life and death are shadowy and vague. Who shall say where the one begins, and where the other ends?'

                                                                         --Edgar Allan Poe.


Lifelong friends Sue and Levi have a dark past. A friend of theirs, Tim, said he found a portal to another place. They didn't believe him and decided to never speak of it again. Years later in adulthood, a new strange event has occurred. Levi wakes up from a coma after being hit by a car. He was trying to save someone...except he's told no one was on the road but him. A mysterious, flippant ghost named Nikita appears, and he opens the door to Levi and Sue a world where the boundaries between life and death, reality and fantasy, are as transparent as the fog. This revelation will bring new possibilities and nightmares into Levi and Sue's lives, and force them to confront the events surrounding Tim. That is if they survive.

I love horror. Despite its cultural marginalization in storytelling it's the genre I find the most creative and exhilarating. However, the 21st-Century has so far proven unkind to horror. After a spike of torture porn, found footage, and remakes that really didn't need to happen, the genre fell by the wayside. Fortunately, horror is making a gradual comeback, and the rise back up is never more hard fought than in comics. The market is dominated by superheroes and science fiction with only a little room for different genres. All is not lost as apparent with the popularity of horror comics like The Walking Dead, NailbiterHarrow County, Outcast, etc.

However, I'm a picky motherfucker. I want my horror full of blood, cheap scares, and more like any other deviant, but I also want it to be experimental and push the boundaries of visual storytelling. Technically, Numb is a mystery drama, but it contains important horror elements: strong visuals and an unshakeable feeling of dread. With surreal art, engaging characters, and an unpredictable plot, Numb delivers a dark psychological story satisfying to those that want more than just B movie bloodcorn.

An important part of the webcomic is art. It's essential to creating an unshakeable feeling of dread that permeates throughout the story. I use dread here not as to describe the sensation of immediate horror, but the nerve-racking anticipation of it. First, there are the panel layouts. While they're rectangular shape is common in comics, Samlin experiments with their arrangement. Sometimes there are no panel borders, the author choosing to decompress a scene without them.

Nikita Numb


Other times panels are used to decompress scenes in surreal ways.

Decompression Numb


In the above scene, a child views the world full of talking animals as though it's a film reel. The surrealism causes the reader to question the child's mind. Is this happening or is she mentally ill? It's unsettling and a moment of genuine dread.

Accompanying these panel layouts are the equally experimental colors. Samlin often uses them to express mood.

Color Numb


Here, background coloring demonstrates Sue's emotional transition from angry to calm. This adds to the dramatic tension of the scene, expressing more than what could be conveyed in words.

Coloring often compliments the horror scenes by choosing colors that create an uneasy feeling. It's important that watercolor is used here. It's imperfection, the way it stains the page rather than coats, is ghostly and adds to the surreal visuals.

The Fly - Numb


This scene is a prime example of how the art works. As the fly leaves the corpse(?), the panels are angular like the Dutch tilt from horror movies that causes uneasiness. Combine that with the deathly tone of the watercolor, and the reader feels dread. Often these surreal scenes take place among everyday activities with normal people around who cannot witness them. Only a few can see and their POV is shared with the reader, unable to tell if these strange occurrences are real or fantasy. This is the horror Numb's art encapsulates, psychological terror that causes one to doubt their own sanity. For this surreal art to be consistent throughout shows Salmelin dedication to her craft and using it to shape the comic she wants.

It's not perfect. In the earlier chapters, the watercolors are messy and sometimes turn into globs of gray. Also, character anatomy doesn't hold up to the rest of the art. It's height and body range are inconsistent, appearing a little too doodlish. Chapter 3 shows improvements to the art with cleaner watercolor. Improving character anatomy, whether by making it more realistic or consistent, will go a long way for the series.

As said before, Numb is a mystery drama despite its horror elements. The plot revolves around doubts in the separation between fantasy and reality, life and death. It is an unpredictable plot that with each chapter adds more layers and, consequently, raises more questions to the mystery. At the center of this are Levi, Sue, Nikita, and a little girl named Amy and her father. Each character has a distinct look, personality, and set of interests. The only similarity they have seems to be their speech which varies in how noticeable it is. This is the only issue that detracts from their uniqueness.

The two most engaging characters so far are Sue and Nikita. Despite looking different and being opposite genders (Hell, opposite ends of the living/dead spectrum), they have similar personalities. Both come off as cynical, condescending, and extremely critical. However, Sue's cynicism is often humorous, more teasing than malicious. Also, she demonstrates her love and care for close friends in her own way. Nikita, on the other hand, comes off as belligerent and finds any opportunity to taunt the living, whether it be rearranging items or breaking them. He would be unlikable if not for a genuine moment of kindness. It's rather refreshing to have characters with rough exteriors and mushy cores.

Prank Numb


Levi isn't as interesting. He doesn't give much of an impression personality wise other than he's easily annoyed by Sue. Levi is the first one to see beyond reality which is interesting, but he needs a bit more complexity. As for Amy and her father, not much goes on with them except for Chapter 3 when it becomes obvious Amy has her own secrets which further complicate the story.

Going back to the plot, the mystery is what are these fantastical events, how are they happening, and why can only a select few see them? Numb is relatively new, so the mystery is still developing and can't be fully explored. What has been revealed so far is interesting and unpredictable. My first impression reading was that Levi discovered there are ghosts walking among the living. While that is true, there is also a lot more going on. It's not just merely life after death but possibly multiple universes. The characters are brought full circle into this mystery because of what happened between Levi, Sue, and their friend Tim. The problem is that whenever a flashback occurs the narration is short, only leaves hints, and never answers questions. It's necessary though. The mystery is taking its time and inspiring the reader to put it together before the reveal. As long as the story is engaging, waiting for answers will not be tiresome.

The only issue with the story is the decompression. Webcomics have the freedom of not adhering to a page limit for each chapter. The dark side to this is that storytellers will decompress a chapter so much it spreads the plot thin. Salmelin doesn't suffer this problem but does come close a few times. Hopefully, she will maintain a steady pace. Another issue are the typos which can be easily fixed through editing. 

As far as themes in Numb go, life and death is a major one. The art and story put both the living and the dead side by side, showing how the boundary between them is transparent. In fact, transparent boundaries seem to go beyond just this concept. Those between universes exist as well. Right now, this theme is purely aesthetic and not deeply philosophical (is this the real life? is this just fantasy?), but the comic achieves in showing how the separate experiences are surreal and not wholly separate from one another.

Another theme is friendship and responsibility. Levi and Sue are lifelong friends, but they are avoiding the memories of the estranged Tim. This challenges their relationship and becomes amplified when Levi's visions appear. The duo's attempts to deny the supernatural events occurring presently tie back to their guilt for whatever happened to Tim. Only by accepting them can Levi and Sue begin to take responsibility for Tim and make amends. After all, true friends don't leave each other behind when things get tough.

These themes are in their infancy along with the plot, but Salmelin gradual development of them will pay off in the long run.

Numb is a promising new webcomic that uses its surreal art to create visually experimental psychological horror that pushes the medium's boundaries. The developing plot is unpredictable while exploring serious themes and supported by a unique cast of characters. Character anatomy needs work and there are typos to fix, but it seems as though Salmelin continues to improve as an artist, so it's only a matter of time before she masters the art of webcomics. I highly recommend this series for anyone looking for a webcomic that is unique, experimental, and, most of all, horrifying.

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