You Should be Reading/Watching This: Outcast
Welcome back folks!
Having been a little kid watching TV in the 1980s and then observing as the artform has evolved since then, from my personal perspective I can't say that there's ever been a better time to be a genre fan on TV than there is right now. Television series such as Game of Thrones, Lost, Battlestar Gallactica, 24, Spactacus, and Strike Back have all showed in the last decade that the gap between TV and Film is closing when it comes to action, fantasy, and sci-fi, and the ability to tell long-form stories even gives some television shows a leg up when it comes to developing characters over a long period of time. Even superhero stories, long dominated by the mega-budgets of blockbuster adaptations, feel right at home telling their serialized stories on TV, including larger-than-life characters that you would think might be impossible to adapt for the small screen, such as The Flash and Supergirl.
It could be argued though, that of all the genres making their presence known on a weekly basis, it's been horror that has made the largest impact in terms of television dominance. This is not to say that horror hasn't always been a network or syndication mainstay, including TV gold standards such as The Twilight Zone, The X-Files, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but for every great horror show, so many of my memories of small screen frights have included the likes of Freddy's Nightmares and Friday the 13th: The Series. These were cheap shows meant to cash in on a built-in fanbase, but never provide a series with real scares or substance. Within this new era of TV, so much of that has changed, as titles such as Penny Dreadful and Hannibal have emerged as shows with real artistic vision, while FX's American Horror Story has shown us that even the old anthology format can still bring something new to the table given the right creative team and an audience willing to follow it.
As far as success goes though, it would be tough for any show to match up with what The Walking Dead (and to a lesser degree it's spinoff Fear the Walking Dead) has managed to accomplish. Based on Robert Kirkman's long-running comic book series of the same name, The Walking Dead is a world-wide phenomenon and a ratings juggernaut that has spawned everything from action figures to bed sheets. Like Kirkman's original books, "The zombie movie that never ends" has managed to tap into the zeitgeist by giving us a story that draws from everything from splatter films to Peckinpah westerns, and still manages to feel like nothing else on TV or in comics. This story of survival shows how ordinary people have to come together and evolve in order to re-take the earth from the worst situation imaginable, and it's in that theme that people seem to latch onto this mythology. The Walking Dead gives you hope for humanity, even as it shows the worst in us and the world around us.
Now full disclosure: Mr. Kirkman and I have been friends for a long time. We went to high school together, and he was frustratingly good at Mortal Kombat. He and I even worked at the same comic book store in the late 90s, he was the best man at my wedding, and I was there when he published his first comics. Now mind you, I started reading Robert's comics because he was my friend and I wanted to support him, but I still read them years and years later because I am a rabid fan of his work. Titles like TWD and Invincible (which has sadly announced the end of its incredible run) get me pumped every month for their wild and inventive storytelling. These are books that feel like they have no limits put upon them when it comes to the direction of their stories and each book manages to keep taking huge chances at every corner, which keeps them fresh and exciting, even though these titles have been going for more than a decade.
It's that same excitement that has me completely obsessed with Outcast, Kirkman's new series with artist Paul Azaceta. If you don't read the comic, you may recognize the name from the new Cinemax series also based on the books, which just wrapped up is fantastic first season. I've been wanting to write about both the comic and TV series for a while now, but couldn't decide on which to go into, so I figured we'd just talk about both. So, without further ado.
It's clobberin' time!
Comic Book Series: Outcast (2014- )
Writer: Robert Kirkman
Artist: Paul Azaceta
Publisher: Image Comics
New Issue due out September 28, 2016
Have you ever had a gift you thought made you extra special? I'm not talking about looks or personality, but some sort latent ability, such as feeling like you're a little psychic or luckier than most people. It's that little something extraordinary that makes you feel invincible. Now imagine instead of loving that feeling, you hated it. Imagine that the one thing that made you a little more special than everyone else was like a waking nightmare you couldn't get away from.
That's the state of mind of Outcast's Kyle Barnes. While the young man is kind and thoughtful, those that he loves and cherishes the most always end up turning against him in the most violent and tragic ways, as if some dark force has come over them. This has compelled Kyle to live in seclusion, existing alone with only the traumas of his past to keep him company, and only his adopted sister even caring enough to stop by. It's only when Kyle decides to confront the literal and figurative demons from his history that he decides to finally take control of his very existence.
Now what really becomes striking when you start to read Outcast is just how different it is from The Walking Dead. Where TWD begins quite viscerally, throwing you almost immediately into its post-apocalyptic world of zombies and murderous outlaws, Outcast features a brand of horror that is much more subtle and psychological. Sure, brutality is certainly not outside the scope of the book is presented in a supremely raw form over and over throughout, but so much of the horror of this series manifests itself as an extension of us losing our connection to people, allowing our very humanity to be distorted by the forces of evil.
So much of this horror is told not only by Robert's excellent slow burn of a story, but through the moody images from artist/inker Paul Azaceta and colorist Elizabeth Breitweiser; so often getting across Kyle's isolation and anguish with very little dialogue. Flashback panels of his mother and wife going berserk tell you all you need to know about the character and why he is such a husk of a person, helping to sell how powerful it is to watch Barnes break out of this shell to try and help people as well as finally take his life back.
Make no mistake though, this is still a book able to really showcase all the creative talents of its writer. Kirkman makes you care so much for the plights of his main characters; not only for Barnes, but also for Reverend Anderson, the local preacher struggling to deal with how ineffective he has been throughout his battle with evil thus far, as well as Megan, Kyle's adopted sister dealing with specters from her own childhood experiences. These are all well-rounded, believable characters with real problems, and Robert masterfully makes them so identifiable that you can't help but be horrified when things go wrong, and they always inevitably go wrong.
These people also go hand in hand with the story's setting, which takes place in the Appalachian town of Rome, West Virginia. While making this little borough feel small and cut off in a way that comes naturally to communities such as this one, it also never feels like Mayberry; so often a shorthand in pop culture for places of this ilk. Films such as Cameron Crowe's Elizabethtown and perhaps even on TV's Justified to some degree, try to romanticize small town living but end up simply degrading it instead, making everyone seem cloyingly folksy and simple. Having come from a small town like this one, Kirkman brings an authenticity to Rome that is rarely seen and greatly appreciated.
It's also that naturalism that gives the horror underneath this hamlet much more impact. Because the series steers so far from camp, it's terrifying when an officer murders his partner's wife in cold blood or when a small boy bites his own finger off. These moments cut deep with a brutal force in your gut and twist around in there until your only relief is to turn to the next page.
Outcast as a comic represents even more proof as to why Robert Kirkman's rise in the industry has been so meteoric. The book is simply a rock solid supernatural horror with terrific characters and an attention to detail that makes this series stand apart. Like The Walking Dead before it, Outcast was tailor made to branch out and become a TV series, but all on its own manages to scare the living daylights out of you.
TV Series: Outcast (2016- )
Starring: Patrick Fugit, Philip Glenister, Wrenn Schmidt, Kate Lyn Sheil, Reg E. Cathey, and Brent Spiner
Created by Robert Kirkman
Perhaps the biggest compliment I can pay to Cinemax's adaptation of Outcast is that I love it nearly as much as I do the original comic series and on top of that I can say unequivocally that the show fills me with just as much dread as the story has done on the page. Just as The Walking Dead before it, Outcast has varied slightly from it's source material, and has even managed to escalate many of its conflicts at a more rapid pace than the original, but with Kirkman helping to steer the ship as executive producer on the series, the show has stayed true to the vision already laid down by the writer and his art team. Comparatively, I'd even say after a single season that Outcast is actually on surer footing than The Walking Dead was at the same period, and I'm ecstatic about the places it might go.
This is a show with an already strong mythology, terrific characters, a strong cast, and tight writing throughout. Even above all that, on its most basic level Outcast is just simply scary as hell. Benefitting from having the talents of You're Next's Adam Wingard as director of the pilot episode to set the initial bar very high, the series manages to pile on the scares with each installment, disturbing you with images of ordinary people turning into horrible monsters and Barnes' struggle to not get pulled below by Rome's undercurrent of evil.
Case in point is the very personal battle in the pilot between Kyle and Joshua Austin (Gabriel Bateman), a small possessed boy who has slowly succumb to the demon inside of him. After bloodying up his mother and pushing Reverend Anderson (Phillip Glenister) to his limit, it's Kyle who has to step in and face the unhinged boy, as he hurls insults at Barnes and writhes around in a reptile-like fashion. Adam Wingard pulls out all the stops, as the boy is wild animal, throwing his opponents all over the room in violent fashion as he levitates to unsettle the people trying to help him, unnerving the audience as well with how much he knows about Kyle's past. As Kyle struggles to subdue the boy he must become increasingly brutal, and the camera does not shy away from the physical nature of the conflict. As the sequence ends, both combatants and audience are pushed to the point of exhaustion.
While this signature sequence is not always indicative of the struggles faced in this first season, it is a sign of how disturbing many of the episodes do get. Like the source material, many of the horrors found are more cerebral in nature, but the intensity of the terror here on the show is quite extraordinary and not always for the faint of heart. As bodies twist and people you care about get murdered or simply make awful choices with dire consequences, Outcast doesn't shy away from unsettling you on the road to get where it's going.
Along for the ride is a terrific cast, and at the center of it all, Patrick Fugit gives a damaged, yet subtle performance as Kyle. You can just see a lifetime of tragedy in his face, and as hope comes to his eyes in futile moments, his performance crushes you as those moments are often dashed away. Also great are Wrenn Schmidt and Philip Glenister, who give real life to Megan and Reverend Anderson. Each manage to leap off the page with depth and personality, struggling with their everyday lives already when this madness starts to befall them and their loved ones.
Perhaps the best of all is Brent Spiner as Sidney, the stranger in town who seems to be more than he is letting on. For the genre veteran, who is a legitimate science fiction icon after his years as Lt. Commander Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation, this is a chilling turn as the show's main antagonist. Whether cutting someone up or simply giving a steely stare, Spiner effortlessly makes Sidney memorable and a villain to be reckoned with going forward.
Outcast preys on preternatural fears; making you terrified of everyone around you, and not letting you trust those you've loved and held close. A stranger or your best friend for decades could easily be your worst nightmare. With enough time, I have no doubt this show could end up truly some special. Thankfully, whether on the page or on TV, the future seems bright for Kirkman and company's dark and twisted new series, and I couldn't be happier both as a friend and a huge fan.