REVIEW: The Watcher – A Failure of Community

A drawing of a church of red stained glass windowd. A priest stands in the foreground in front of the church looking strern.

Originally released in 2019, Zenescope’s The Watcher is a collected three-issue thriller. The story, written by Ralph Tedesco and scripted by Victoria Rau, promises a spooky blend of fun and scares with pencils from Julius Abrera and Babisu Kourtis. However, it delivers a cynical, lukewarm horror romp that struggles to make sense of its own ideas.

The Watcher #1-3

Julius Abrera and Babisu Kourtis (Artists), Ralph Tedesco and Victoria Rau (Writers), Marco Mastrazzo (Cover Artist), Carlos M. Mangual (Letters), and Fran Gamboa with J.C. Ruiz (Colors)
Zenescope
August 18, 2021

A drawing of a church of red stained glass windowd. A priest stands in the foreground in front of the church looking strern.

SPOILER WARNING: This article contains spoilers for The Watcher #1-3.

The Watcher follows Erica, a troubled teenage girl living with nightmares of a demonic presence in her bedroom each night. Her father, a Catholic deacon, has moved them for the fifth time in as many years to a quiet New England suburb under the church’s shadow. A perpetual outsider, Erica finally opens up to her classmate at her Catholic school and finds friendship with the snarky party girl Stacy and the occult-inclined athlete Tamra. She even finds potential romance in Chris, a classmate her deeply conservative father tries to keep her from seeing for fear of her losing her virginity before marriage.

At every turn, the girls are subject to misogynistic and homophobic abuse by conservative teachers, parents, and church figures. Erica is hounded for her desire to go to college and constantly watched by her neighbor Robert through her bedroom window. Stacy is degraded for her open sexuality and partying. Tamra is bisexual and dating her classmate Becky in secret, constantly pelted by homophobic slurs, and even threatened by Erica’s father. The only adult ally present is Erica’s mother, who charms her father into accepting her more progressive views on womanhood.

This makes for a compelling set-up for a horror-thriller about young women banding together to escape demonic hauntings and religious oppression. However, this doesn’t pan out. The plot kicks into gear when a demonic presence kills Stacy and her boyfriend in the woods. In their grief, Erica, Tamra, and Chris band together to solve Stacy’s murder, falling down a supernatural rabbit hole that exposes the town’s sordid history.

Erica discovers the town was cursed by a powerful witch in 1680, who turns out to be her own mother. The witch escaped death at the hands of the town’s Puritan leaders and her house was burned, trapping her demon lover – the demon haunting Erica – between Earth and Hell. Erica’s house was built on this spoiled land, and the Watchers, specifically her voyeuristic neighbor, have been watching over the cursed house awaiting the witch’s return.

And return she does, beginning a killing spree to awaken her lover and bind him to Chris, who has been in a relationship with Erica’s mother. All this culminates in a plan to use Erica as the witch’s next vessel. In the end, Tamra rescues Erica, who kills Chris and summons latent supernatural powers to banish the witch and demon back to Hell.

What is pitched as a female-driven thriller falls apart because The Watcher doesn’t seem to understand the themes it struggles with. It portrays the friendship between young women as an escape from fear and oppression as they rebel against the abuse they endure. In its execution, both scripting and visual narrative, it undermines these ideas to frustrating results.

Erica, Stacy, and Tamra are neither well-developed nor capable of consistently empathizing with each other from scene to scene. Erica’s friendships are similarly superficial, with most of their conversations filled with flippant or petty comments that don’t fit the weight of their circumstances. Stacy is a flimsy Regina George clone who’s given little to do but sneer at her friends and be judged by adults. Tamra exists to endure homophobic abuse and introduce occult elements, such as the Ouija board she brings to Erica’s house in Chapter 1 and the psychic she later contacts.

When Tamra is harassed by Erica’s father for dating a girl, Erica dismisses Tamra’s concerns outright, only for the story to never address them again. This is especially egregious given that Tamra is the only developed queer and Black character in the book. Her primary role is to be a window into occultism and magic for the white protagonist, playing into harmful stereotypes embedded deeply within the horror genre. This is made more frustrating by her bisexuality being the source of her abuse. Still, the story isn’t even concerned with her experiences of it, simply brushing it aside with a snide remark from Erica.

It reads as if Rau wanted to tell a story about female friendship but couldn’t conceive of a world where that was possible because sincerity can’t exist in a horror story. Everyone must be catty and glib as if sucked into an episode of Riverdale. The framing of the plot doesn’t help these issues, either. In the context of the story, the Catholic church is an oppressive force that extends its influence through teachers, parents, and neighbors. However, it is also ultimately justified in its position.

Women’s sexuality, be it Erica’s attraction to Chris or Tamra’s attraction to Wendy, is described as dangerous and demonic. This goes largely unchallenged. To validate this worldview, the witch goes so far as to court a literal demon and use an underage teen boy as her lover’s vessel. There is power and comfort in this idea of feminine community, with the initial support from Erica’s mother, as the girls try in their own ways to flee the town. They should find community, and the comic attempts to convey this idea as Erica and Tamra grow closer after Stacy’s death. Stacy herself, who is revealed to have slightly more depth than previously established, is still brutally murdered in the woods after having sex with her boyfriend. The story punishes her for having sex the way the town does, while Erica, the virgin vessel of the witch’s curse, is spared. Like Tamra’s Ouija board, it feels like Rau is simply relying on these tropes because that’s what happens in a horror story.

Erica’s mother posed as a maternal ally, affirming her daughter’s need to be her own woman while seemingly seducing Chris behind her daughter’s back. In the end, other women – your own mother — will stab you in the back over a man. She and Tamra finally escape the town, but Erica stays with the church and commits herself to become a Watcher. After everything she’s been through, Erica is just another tool fighting demons that represent the church’s patriarchal nightmares. The Watchers, who leer at teen girls and burn women, are correct in doing so.

There is no love between these teen girls, and there can be no community to support them because cynical genre trappings won’t allow it. If the girls are trying to escape because they’re seen as demonic for their sexuality, and the ultimate threat of their world is demonic female sexuality, what is the story saying?

Artists Abrera and Kourtis, on pencils for Chapter 1 and Chapters 2 and 3, respectively, help to underscore these core issues. Abrara’s characters smirk, sneer, and frown at one another in most of Chapter 1, even in vulnerable moments. Hostile body language contradicts any sense of emotional intimacy the dialogue attempts to establish. The teen characters even look far older than they’re intended to be, making it feel more like a snarky CW show for a few unintended laughs.

Kourtis’ character designs lack consistency from panel to panel in the second and third chapters, making it difficult to even connect visually with the characters. They are more emotionally open and sympathetic in their portrayals, but they don’t even look like the same people with some distracting anatomical choices peppered throughout. The atmosphere is moodier than in the first chapter. The later parts serve as more successful examples of horror storytelling. Interior spaces are marked by deep pools of shadow, and the occasional gory scenes are impactful in their grizzly details.

Overall, the linework is well complemented by Fran Gamboa with J.C. Ruiz on colors. The palettes shift from the neutral beiges and earth tones of school and home life to the deep blues and greens indicative of supernatural elements. This creates a distinctive visual break between these parts of the story that enhances the overall mood of the series. There are also some eye-catching textures and subtle color gradients at work that inject visual interest throughout. It all works together to bring richness to the visual narrative and elevate it in a subtle way.

There is a solid narrative skeleton underneath The Watcher’s generic conventions and cynicism, sturdy bones for a story about young women banding together. It just isn’t interested in developing its own ideas, vaguely gesturing toward weightier themes without the curiosity and earnestness needed to do them justice.

Magen Cubed

Magen Cubed

Magen Cubed is a novelist, occasional critic, and general internet menace. Frequently seen hollering about monsters on Twitter.

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