Review: Daphne Byrne hardcover/paperback (DC Comics)


The problem with playing with spirits is that sometimes spirits play back — at least, that seems to be one of the morals of the fourth release from DC’s Hill House Comics imprint, Laura Marks and Kelley Jones' Daphne Byrne. Indeed the wonderful irony of Byrne is the mission of its young protagonist is to try to expose the duplicitousness of a supposed psychic with nefarious intent even as Daphne herself is seeing ghosts. It makes for a story that’s charming, if not quite as complex as Hill House’s masterful Low, Low Woods. Six issues' worth of art by horror master Jones is still reason enough to check this out.

[Review contains spoilers]

Artist Piotr Jablonski’s covers for most of Daphne Byrne are the stuff of nightmare fuel, hands down the most unsettling Hill House covers so far, with realistic textures and demonic eyes that stare out at the reader. As opposed to Jenny Frisson’s variants on Low, Low Woods, Jablonski’s main Byrne covers are far better than its variants.

What they cover, however, is not quite as scary; what seems a demon on the front is often just a petulant boy on the inside, dogging Daphne’s steps. Though Hill House’s Basketful of Heads played with the protagonist as both victim and killer, Byrne is the first time in Hill House where the protagonist is clearly the only supernaturally-powered monster in the room. There is menace, bad deeds, and Jones' grotesqueries, but I was never so worried about Daphne as Basketful’s June Branch or Dollhouse Family’s Alice.

[See the latest DC trade solicitations.]

As a kind of “19th century Carrie,” Byrne is fun to look at but mildly predictable; we know Daphne will use her powers to get back at the girls who torment her, for instance. This is familiar horror territory. To that end, the book picks up when Marks essentially abandons that storyline in favor of Daphne’s various efforts to save her widowed mother from being hoodwinked by the psychic. This gets more complicated the farther it goes, as we find that not only is the psychic part of a dark cult, but that this is a long-standing conspiracy specifically targeting Daphne’s mother.

Marks shows admirable restraint here in that many writers would have pit Daphne against some rival demon backing the cultists in the conclusion. Instead we never get any indication that the cultists are anything more than misguided, oft-naked, and bloodthirsty. Again, there’s a wonderful irony here that distinguishes Daphne Byrne. It is not, Ghostbusters-esque, that people doubt the presence of the supernatural and Daphne has to prove it’s real, nor that Daphne herself is persecuted for her alignment with the supernatural; rather, the supernatural is clearly real here but Daphne knows that the cultists are not it, so she seeks to debunk the very thing she knows to be real (somewhere, Mulder’s ears are perking up).

I’ve seen a book here and there recently where Jones' figures were well past absurd; one wants Jones to be Jones, but at the same time it’s dissonant when a figure that the narrative presents normally is bent impossibly by the art. As such, at least in Byrne’s first issue, I was struck by Jones' relative reserve; not that Jones doesn’t get the opportunity to draw veritable Un-Men overflowing the page, but body proportions and relative ages and sizes hold steady at the start. That Daphne seems to age up as the story goes on (see, for instance, attacking Mr. Brooke) might as well be meant to symbolize Daphne’s growing power as it could be artistic enthusiasm. But to be sure, Jones is at the top of his game with the spidery, rotting face Daphne puts on to scare a bully and the weird boogeymen who crawl across her classmates' heads.

Perhaps some of what ranks Daphne Byrne as least effective (but still plenty enjoyable) among the Hill House titles is its lack of mythology. I’d never fault a story for failing to spell out all of its nuances, but as compared to Basketful’s Rashomon-like stories within stories, Dollhouse’s generation-spanning ghosts and aliens, and Low, Low Woods' horrific secrets, Byrne is rather linear, its elements all but coincidental. Why Althea Byrne was chosen by the cultists, we never know, nor by what strange chance Daphne turned out to be demon-possessed (there are intimations that the father might’ve liked to read about the occult, for instance, but nothing ever dwelled upon).



Nor does Marks really give attention to whether Daphne’s powers comes from “Brother” or if she imagines him but her powers are inborn, and what the implications are of a young woman in a culture that treats women as subservient imagining a young man as her monstrous savior. Do even the demons not see Daphne as equal, or is this how she sees herself? Is she not, in parallel to her mother, also being married off to spawn demons? Not to mention that in the final pages, her relationship with Brother becomes romantic.

As with other Hill House comics, Laura Marks centers a powerful woman at the center of her story, turning certain established horror tropes on their heads, but I didn’t think Daphne Byrne faced these elements quite as directly as some others did. Still a fun, lighter story, the first Hill House book I finished in a night.

[Includes original and variant covers, writer and artist interviews with sketches]

Comments ( 2 )

  1. Thanks for the review. I think Daphne Byrne was one of my least favorites of the bunch. Interesting and worth a read, but certainly I enjoyed the other titles you mentioned more.

    I am looking forward to your review of I enjoyed that...for the story written by Joe Hill and Stuart Immonen's art (he's always been a favorite artist of mine since his days on the Superman books). If you like sci-fi tinged horror than you'll enjoy that one.

    1. Plunge coming up ... that book was a doozy. Glad to hear it wasn't just me in my reaction to Daphne Byrne (and that someone else read the whole Hill House bunch!).


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