The Woods Volumes 1-8
James Tynion IV (writer), Michael Dialynas (artist), Josan Gonzalez (colorist), Ed Dukeshire (letterer)
When I read the first couple volumes of The Woods last year, I felt that the series had promise. James Tynion IV offered up a plot and world that were fun—Bay Point High School is randomly transported to a dangerous, monster-infested moon—if not entirely original. Like the television show The 100, internal power struggles threaten the group’s ability to survive, one of the teenage leaders becomes a tough but solitary hunter (Karen pulls a Clarke in volume 4), and the other human beings who—surprise!—also inhabit this hostile world fluctuate between warring with the students and offering up allyship.
That the high school had been pulled from Milwaukee, Wisconsin was exciting to me because I have worked in a high school in Milwaukee, and the presence of several queer teens of color reflected the reality of the student body that I knew. In volume two, Tynion gives a lush backstory to Ben, a black boy with a football-player build who felt he couldn’t come out as gay because his sister is already out, and their parents had been pressuring him to lead a typical heterosexual life, fulfilling their dreams of weddings and grandchildren. Queer characters rarely have queer siblings in media (scientific fact: only one gay allowed per family) but Ben was gifted time to angst over his sexuality, pursue his long-held crush on theater nerd Isaac Andrews, and release his frustration with peers who viewed him only as muscle, not as a whole person.
Ben’s story gave me hope for what this series could have been. Amidst the glut of dystopian media available, stories that promise unique character development can rise to the top. Unfortunately, The Woods initially promises its readers well-rounded, complex queer teens of color, and promptly fails to deliver much character development.
In addition to Ben, The Woods’ cast includes Sanami, a gay teen of Japanese descent already experienced in hunting and surviving because her family lives in the woods Swiss Family Robinson style, Kayla, Ben’s gay older sister, Maria, a Latina teen who is possibly bi—the tension between Maria and Karen feels very much like the tension between exes—and, later on, Sander, a South Asian trans teen born to the community of humans already living on the moon. Each of these characters in turn falls into a flat, unoriginal storyline.
Ben dates Isaac until Isaac leaves him to pursue weird moon science with Adrian, Isaac’s now-dead best friend. Since their breakup, Ben has played the smallest of roles in the story, dated a boy who strongly resembles Isaac, and followed his friends into peril largely so that he can spend more time mooning after Isaac. Sanami dated Kayla for a hot second but mostly gave up her own development in favor of being an emotional support for Karen. Kayla is a victim of one of the series’ two ill-used time jumps; she might have died when a villainous army called The Hoard sent moon monsters to besiege Bay Point, or could be alive and still dating Sanami, but we don’t know because she simply disappears from the story. Maria dies futilely after a strangely paced reminiscence on her first lessons in leadership given by her senator father. Sander has little personality outside of being in love with Karen and mostly offers up knowledge that moves the plot along.
Calder, whose plot line circles around being under the thumb of his abusive older brother, and Karen who, again, is Clarke from The 100, two white teens, have received the most character development. A small saving grace is that Karen and Sanami ultimately have the most interesting relationship. Their friendship weathers the deaths of friends and lovers and their mutual understanding that they must be willing to kill in order to survive, but Tynion again chooses to build their story through disjointed and strangely paced flashbacks. That Sanami’s best developed story line focuses not on her black girlfriend but her white friend feels like another failed promise.
The true star of the story is Josan Gonzalez, the book’s colorist. (Gonzalez is only credited for colors through volume 6, although they feel consistent through 7 and 8.) Michael Dialynas’ monster aliens are lots of fun—giant crab things with huge teeth! Monkeys with spider arms and glowing eyes!—and outshine the character designs; Maria and Sanami have very similar silhouettes and hairstyles, and in a conversational scene full of closeups, I honestly couldn’t tell them apart. However, each book is beautifully cohesive; the vibrant pinks and purples that cast an alien sheen over the moon where the teens are trapped remind readers of their isolation, while the grey-blue of Earth reveals how drained of love and joy the worlds of the teens’ parents have become. When various students begin to drown their sorrows with gazer root, an alien hallucinogen, Gonzalez has a hell of a time creating trippy visuals that feel light and thin in contrast to reality. This tactic ultimately helps readers believe in Adrian’s ghost, a neon-green entity initially visible only to Isaac.
I’m interested to see how Karen finally rises up to be the leader she’s supposedly destined to be, and look forward to a gory and fantastic final battle. I’m also willing to point readers to this book at the library if they are fans of The 100 and are looking for some easily consumable dystopian lit. It is a boon that the comic features queer teens of color, albeit flat ones, and that it includes some fun gore. Regardless, once the series reaches its end, I’ll likely still be disappointed, and left wondering who these characters could’ve been if Tynion had given up some plot in favor of deeper character development.