New York, 1884. Frederick Byrne has died, and his widow visits a medium in the hopes of contacting his spirit. But it is the couple’s daughter, a bullied fourteen-year-old named Daphne, who turns out to be a magnet for supernatural phenomena. She has nightmares of strange creatures, undergoes harrowing visions when awake, and is followed by a ghostly boy seemingly invisible to all others.
Kelley Jones (Artist), Michelle Madsen (Colourist), Laura Marks (Writer), Rob Leigh (Letterer)
November 3, 2020
At first, Daphne is naturally disturbed by these happenings – but the spirit world turns out to bring temptations as well as fears. With her father gone, her spiritualism-obsessed mother growing distant and her classmates treating her as a pariah, Daphne finds that her one true companion is the mysterious ghost boy. With his aid, she begins to cultivate abilities that help her to strike back against an unkind world.
In Daphne Byrne, writer Laura Marks and artist Kelley Jones take us on a tour through the iconography of late nineteenth-century Gothic. The comic depicts place in a New York where séances reach out to the hereafter, crumbling graveyards provide places of refuge, dusty libraries hold forbidden secrets, occult societies practice unhallowed rites, and the emotions repressed by polite society are prone to bursting forth in the guise of warped visions.
Accompanying us through this museum of genre staples is Daphne Byrne herself. The cliché associated with Gothic heroines is that they faint a lot; true to form, Daphne spends a number of the story’s most significant portions in a state of unconsciousness. But do not mistake this for passivity: Daphne finds a role as mediator between the mundane world of petty bullying and the realm of spirits and nightmares – a position only enhanced by her somnolent tendencies.
The comic’s first chapter ends with a dream sequence in which Daphne shifts from a tomb filled with decomposing revenants to the scene of a blood sacrifice attended by a circle of anthropomorphised pigs. Her bad dreams later begin bleeding into the real world as she witnesses sundry macabre sights – skulls with short vertebrae swimming through the air like tadpoles, a rotting mother cradling the cadaver of an infant – in the shadowy corners of New York.
Given time she is even able to control these apparitions to her benefit, as when she transforms herself into a rot-faced ghoul to scare off a bully. Her dalliances with the supernatural lead to feelings of guilt, manifesting in Lady Macbeth fashion as blood-stained hands; but she is reassured by her fraternal companion, the ghost boy, who tempts her still further into his milieu. Daphne’s inner conflict is symbolised in a nightmare sequence that shows her sloughing off both her shame and her skin, arising flayed and fearless.
This danse macabre is rendered by Kelley Jones, perhaps the finest horror artist in the DC Comics stable (amongst other projects he previously drew a number of early Sandman issues, making him a good fit for a comic themed around nightmares). Filled with walking corpses at various stages of decomposition, Kelley’s illustrations have obvious similarities to the classic EC horror comics by the likes of Graham Ingels. But they also hark back still further to the pulp magazine illustrations of Virgil Finlay, depicting horrors that are not merely gruesome but genuinely weird.
Daphne Byrne is more an artist’s than a writer’s comic. This is not to disparage the scripts by Laura Marks, whose story of repression, revenge and period intrigue lends the comic a solid backbone. But the deepest appeal of the book is the opportunity it offers to step into the world implied by vintage Weird Tales artwork. Daphne Byrne the character is a distillation of myriad horror heroines before her, with an added dose of modern rebellion; Daphne Byrne the comic, meanwhile, celebrates an entire tradition of horror imagery, inviting us into a realm at once unnervingly strange and deliciously familiar.