I first picked up Wet Moon, a graphic novel series by Sophie Campbell, last year at the recommendation of a friend. When asked what it was about, my friend said, “It’s like, well, hmmm. People at college, with spooky?” After reading it I can better understand her elevator pitch predicament. There is a lot going on in this story. Slice of Life? Horror? Southern Gothic? Sci Fi/Fantasy? What is the genre? What is the plot? Elements from each of these listed make appearances and merge together seamlessly in Campbell’s writing so that it’s difficult to pigeonhole into any one specific genre. What my friend could tell me about Wet Moon is that it’s full of good art and full of goths. And it is now one of my absolute favorite series.
Wet Moon focuses on Cleo Lovedrop, a first year student at a local art college in the titular Southern town with her friends Trilby, Mara, and Audrey. Trilby and Cleo are white, while Mara and Audrey are black, and all of them have different body types. They’re pudgy, tall, short, rectangular, thick, round, stick-thin, and lanky and god, GOD, the body variations are refreshing. The whole cast and the whole town exemplifies racial and body diversity, each character gorgeously rendered in Campbell’s greyscale inks in this probably haunted, little college town.
Body issues actually becomes one of the themes of the book, delivered mainly through the character of Myrtle, along with a “reflections” motif. Myrtle is a cutter, who broods to herself as she people-watches, hating and resenting thin women, and comparing herself to sasquatch. While Myrtle and Cleo’s paths cross throughout the book, the two don’t actually run into each other (literally) until the very end. Instead the two twistedly mirror each other, even looking similar, being stocky with short hair.
Myrtle lives in an apartment adjacent to Cleo’s, where they are actually staring at mirrors, right towards each other through the same wall. They pass in the bathroom at The House of Usher (a punk club), right next to each other, but missing each other. While Cleo is looking at herself in the mirror contemplatively, Myrtle is glaring at her own reflection. Cleo is worrying that she’s offended her roommate Natalie, while Myrtle is fantasizing about harming Natalie for looking pretty. Cleo only cries into her bathroom mirror after a day of finding mean gossip about herself and feeling isolated by her friends. Cleo stretches her anxiety outward, wanting people to like her. Myrtle turns inward, hating herself first before others. And Cleo is a very insecure and needy person, as Trilby points out–not untruthfully if a bit unkindly–after days of frustrating interactions.
Campbell really shines in writing slice of life. The girls are concerned with all the social mores one might encounter at a local college. Is my ex with someone else (be strong, Mara)? Is my roommate eating my food (yes)? Are people telling tales or exaggerating in such away as to stir up problems (damnit, Audrey)? Am I going to punch my ex’s new girlfriend (yes)?
Wet Moon, Volume 1 is a fairly hefty size at 160 pages long. While manga has entire genres and sub-genres devoted to slice of life and romance, Western comics massively lag behind in most every genre except cape comics (honorable mention to webcomics; may they one day be corporate sanctioned as for now they save us all for free). Wet Moon is a proud testament to the notion that mostly dialogue can be a gripping page-turner in the American comics scene.
Someone leaving mean notes all over campus that “Cleo Eats It,” is not world-endingly high stakes, but it is to Cleo, and with great storytelling, the reader can feel more tension about idle gossip than stories about nuclear missiles. Not that there’s anything wrong with nuclear missile stories, but it’s still relatively rare to read a comic with heart-pounding suspense because a character runs into their ex. (Are you more of a Cleo–run away from ex-boyfriend upon sight to become physically ill–or more of a Mara–PUNCH the nasty new girlfriend of your ex-boyfriend. SHE HAD IT COMING?)
While tracking down the source of the “Cleo eats it” notes is ostensibly a driving plot, I’m almost hesitant to say it’s the main plot, because there are so many little side plots and mysteries being explored simultaneously. Who is the addict woman? Who is hillbilly Barbie (not her name)? Is roommate Natalie just stoic or kind of mean? What happened to Chloe, the previous roommate whose room Cleo now inhabits (another mirror to Cleo)? WTF FERN?! FEEERRRRNNN?!???
While nothing I’ve described above sounds scary at first glance, these side mysteries are how Wet Moon slips definitively into horror. Campbell has a magnificent way of making ordinary scenes suspicious or off-putting. A stain on a college apartment floor is nothing unusual, but the way it’s introduced (“Chloe simply disappeared, leaving nothing but a bloody stain, I swear!! Lol, jk…probably.”), and the way that room is drawn at night–in stark blacks and whites with a distinct noirish Dracula vibe–give that stain relevance. It could actually be a Coca Cola stain. But it could also be Dracula.
There is also more overt horror. Like Fern. Let’s talk about Fern. Fern is a petite woman who lives in a mansion. She’s bald and has a limb reduction birth defect in one arm. Fern makes her first appearance at the House of Usher (that punk club again), where she out-punks and out-goths everyone with her leather bikini bondage outfit, complete with lace-up corset back piercings.
In her second appearance, she is alone, and walks, then crawls, purposefully, completely stark naked into the swamp, drooling slightly. It is very unnerving. And it is a worry that the only visibly disabled character (so far in Volume 1), is crawling around being a swamp monster. Throughout all media there’s the troubling trope that a differently formed exterior betrays a deformed personality. It’s a pretty offensive trope.
I’m inclined to give Campbell the benefit of the doubt, because it’s possible this spooky character just happens to be disabled as part of the already present body-type diversity. Also, while Fern is certainly suspicious in her hobbies and her unwarranted interest in Cleo, she doesn’t seem malicious. It’s something to keep an eye on, though.
The other overt horror element is Hillbilly Barbie (again, not her real name). She gets one scene, barbecuing for her Paw who’s at the end of the dock, fishing. After calling out, “Hey Paw, burgers’re dunnn!” it becomes apparent that Paw is dead. He sure looks real dead. What the hell is going on?
There are so many things that leave me off balance while reading, but only just enough so that I need to keep turning the page to find out what happens next! I absolutely love Wet Moon. It’s such a unique gem of a story about a spooky little town. The genre is Wet Moon, and the plot is Wet Moon.