Will Byers’ story is finally told.
With Halloween approaching but the next season of Stranger Things not due out for the better part of a year still, desperate fans might be jonesing for a fix right about now. Dark Horse’s tie-in comic is certainly better than nothing in that regard. It at least finds a logical point in the show’s mythology from which to build. At the same time, the first chapter of this four-issue miniseries does little to suggest the comic will be a vital addition to the show’s mythology.
The goal with this series is to explore the events of Season 1 from a different perspective. That season revolved heavily around the disappearance of young Will Byers but revealed little about the struggles Will actually faced while trapped in the Upside Down. That’s where the comic comes in. Writer Jody Houser and artist Stefano Martino are tasked with exploring what it’s like to spend a few weeks living in a demonic hellscape separated from everyone you hold dear.
The prospect of seeing Will’s side of the story is certainly appealing. The problem is that, for now, at least, what unfolds on the page is pretty much exactly what you’d expect. Will struggles to come to grips with his surroundings and the fact that he’s in a distorted funhouse mirror version of his reality, and fights to stay one step ahead of the Demogorgon. The story never really digs any deeper than that or makes any attempts to subvert expectations. Even four issues seems an unnecessarily long format for such a barebones story.
To her credit, Houser attempts to get into Will’s head in a way that isn’t possible in the TV format, relying on thought balloons to convey his reactions to the Upside Down and narrative captions to shed more light on his relationship with his friends and how their nerdy interests inform his own idea of what heroism and bravery are. But again, this material never cuts deeper than surface level or adds anything particularly compelling to the mix. More often than not, the captions just get in the way of the story.
It’s no small order recreating the atmosphere of the show, especially given that it’s the music as much as anything that gives Stranger Things its distinctive flavor. Unfortunately, the book tends to struggle in that arena as well. Like far too many licensed comics, Stranger Things is more concerned with capturing the likenesses of the actors rather than telling a clear, efficient story. So while each character is instantly recognizable, the figure work tends to be very stiff and lifeless. Nor does the Upside Down have the same terror-inducing quality as it does in the show. Rather than a black void with a few trace pieces of the real world sprinkled about, it’s mostly just a dirtier, more dimly lit version of Hawkins.
Colorist Lauren Affe does bring a few memorable flourishes to the page. The book has a washed-out, faded quality that makes it look like an old ’80s comic, perfect for the throwback setting. Affe and Martino also make the most of the Dungeons & Dragons segments, creating the illusions of a child’s imagination coming to life through crudely rendered fantasy heroes and bright primary colors. If only that same level of energy and flair were brought to the other scenes.