The Unsound #2
Cullen Bunn (Writer), Jack T. Cole (Artist)
June 29, 2017
In horror, everything depends on restraint. Without the harrowing marital discord of Andrzej Żuławski’s Possession, would the ghoulish bloodbath of the film’s final act pack the same punch? If we hadn’t watched Daenerys’s dragons grow to maturity over seven seasons of Game of Thrones, would the charnel house the adult Drogon makes of the Lannister army leave us quite so awestruck and sickened? By foregoing buildup and skipping straight to a bloody asylum riot, The Unsound misses its chance to establish setting and character. The spectacle with which it replaces them is not only unimpressive but distasteful.
Ashli, rescued by Xerxes from the clutches of the crones who cornered her at the end of the first issue, is subjected to a patronizing interview with the asylum’s director. His offer to medicate her against the stresses of the job feels leaden and predictable. Pharmaceuticals and their abuse as agents of control and sedation are well-trodden ground, and The Unsound has nothing new to say on the subject. The director crawling on the office floor does yield a few of the issue’s only genuinely unsettling panels, though. Blandly infantile with his moon face and round body, the combination of his unflappably professional dialogue and childish affect is enough to unnerve.
That’s where the issue’s strengths end. From the full-scale patient riot, complete with a rain of razor blades, to the asylum’s catatonic patients rising from their beds like the living dead, it’s the mentally ill themselves who function as the issue’s central focus of revulsion. The fact that Ashli has more than a little in common with them is treated as some kind of dark secret. In a world where, according to the CDC, 1 in 5 women engages in self-harm, it’s hard to take that seriously. Ditto the sudden explosion of violence that sweeps through the patient population. Why should we care when we don’t know any of the parties involved? We’ve had no time to settle into St. Cascia, to learn what the people who run and staff it, much less the people it treats, are like. Without that element in place, all the issue’s gore and pandemonium feel weightless.
As soon as the issue’s stakes are established, with Ashli and a mixed band of staff and patients prepared to follow the mysterious Xerxes into the tunnels under the asylum, it’s over. The entire installment is consumed by the deaths of people we don’t know at the hands of other people we don’t know. Overtures toward suggesting that the line between the mentally ill and the mentally fit are arbitrary and sag under the weight of how the comic frames its unwell characters. Visually ghoulish with claw-like fingers and sunken cheeks, they may as well be lifted straight out of a Romero flick. All this might be worth discussing if The Unsound were actually scary, but its sloppy pacing robs its ‘crisis images’ (to borrow a term from horror cartoonist Julia Gfrörer) of any potency. If you’ll indulge me in comparing great horror to an orgasm, The Unsound is a one-minute man.