The Unsound #1
Cullen Bunn (Writer), Jack T. Cole (Artist)
June 7, 2017
In the maiden voyage of writer Cullen Bunn and illustrator Jack T. Cole’s The Unsound, a young nurse named Ashli weathers her first day at Saint Cascia, a baroque insane asylum tucked away in an obscure corner of what I assume from the subway signage and street life is New York City. From Ashli’s exposition-heavy orientation to her disastrous hand-washing at the issue’s close, Bunn’s dialogue lays on the horror so thickly that it’s less a mood than a gelatinous skin under which a story happens to take place. Cole’s shaky lines and constantly pitching angles do the weak material few favors, stretching every image of menace to the point of parody, though his facility with rendering unremarkable bodies ghoulish and off-putting (think Xerxes’ eyeholes, clearly in the wrong place until the inmate opens his eyes) is considerable.
Horror requires a certain measure of groundwork to effect in its audience the physical fear response that is its goal. Consider the first act of Hitchcock’s Psycho, dedicated exclusively to rooting us in the life and struggles of real estate secretary Marion Crane, or the blend of personal loss and professional confusion swirling through fully the first two-thirds of Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows’ Providence. Without established norms and connections to violate, horror must rely entirely on cheap thrills and arresting imagery, neither of which The Unsound has in excess. Voices from drains, menacing administrators, shrouded figures auguring doom, and other genre bric-a-brac culled from everywhere from Barker’s Hellraiser II to Stephen King’s IT fill out the slim issue without leaving much of an impression.
The patter dispensed by paper plate-masked patient Xerxes, the crones, and the shrouded figure is a puree of blandly ominous drivel. Mention of otherworldly princes, gowns of red, and other things couched in that instantly-recognizable “scary speak” ubiquitous to third-rate fantasy horror do little to instill any real sense of what this entire environment and its denizens are meant to represent. There’s a sense throughout that perhaps what the series is aiming at is the justifiable anxiety many feel over the power medical professionals can exert against the ill, but nothing really coheres around the silent abduction of Claire, a patient who tries briefly to ingratiate herself with Ashli and convince the new nurse she’s not actually insane, or the burned-out nurse Jeffers’ disregard for patient well-being.
It’s there, though, that Bunn’s world works best. The inmates at Saint Cascia may be frightening and enigmatic, but it’s the staff and administrators Bunn paints as the real source of suffering. If his handling of mental illness is less than fresh or interesting, especially in the hoarder, cat lady, subway ghoul, and doomsayer panels from the issue’s opening, at least the text explores empathy for the mentally unwell. With its front-loading hopefully over, it’s not hard to imagine the potential excitement and disgust Bunn and Cole could mine from an issue more tightly focused on the thematic connections between caregiver neglect and cruelty and patient deterioration. Let’s see if they can get past the cheap scares and into the genuine dark stuff.