Not every book is going to be the next Watchmen. Not every book should try to be.
I’ll admit that in this age of peak storytelling, where every book and TV show and movie needs to have some level of acclaim to last, having that praise will help you get noticed. But sometimes all it takes is a compelling hook for the public to get ensnared.
Such is the case with Nailbiter, by Joshua Williamson and Mike Henderson. It’s not the greatest book on the shelves of comic book stores. But it’s got a great premise that blends the mysteries of a David Lynch movie with the gore of a B-Movie slasher flick.
Sometimes a mindless horror story is what you need. This is that kind of story.
Nailbiter focuses on Buckaroo, a small town in Oregon, which has produced sixteen of the country’s worst serial killers, known to the public as the “Buckaroo Butchers.” An FBI agent begins to dig into the mystery of why one town has produced so many killers. But when the agent mysteriously vanishes, his friend and NSA investigator Nicholas Finch must take up the mystery to help find his friend. His search aligns him with the town sheriff and latest Butcher, the infamous “Nailbiter,” as he tries to answer the unanswerable – where do serial killers come from?
If this sounds too unbelievable or goofy, then this isn’t the book for you. If it sounds like a fun and gory kind of story, then you’re in for quite a ride.
Part of the fun in the book is seeing some of the oddball and terrifying ideas this creative team comes up with for the Butchers. There’s The Good Samaritan, who kills those that answer his cries for help; The Hatewatcher, who traps people inside a glass cube and watches as they slowly die from starvation; and The Blonde, an attractive woman who maims men that cat-call her as she walks by. There’s a definite sense of heightened reality to some of these killers – in any other story they might be chastised as not being believable. But in a story like this, believably is out the window.
The biggest problem that comes from the book is in the dialogue. While the overall story is clever and subversive to the genres it pays homage to, the dialogue sometimes feels lacking. There are plenty of times when characters will talk aloud to themselves in a way no person would in real life (an example being, “Do these tunnels connect to the ones under the graveyard…?”).
It might seem counter-intuitive to criticize the dialogue for being unbelievable when I just applauded the plot for being so. But I can go along with a crazy plot – if the dialogue feels stilted and overly-explain-y, then it takes me out of the scene. Many times I found myself rewriting dialogue bubbles in my head to something a bit more realistic.
The other issue that arises is leaps in logic that the story doesn’t take the time to explain. An issue will see one of our heroes suddenly captured and locked away, with a quick one-panel flashback showing them getting bludgeoned over the head to explain what happened. Perhaps this was due to page constraints, or just a stylistic choice on the part of the creative team, but it definitely takes a reader out of the story to have to wonder if you missed something.
But while this is one such stylistic choice that falls flat, many others manage to really click and add to the sense of ominous dread throughout. There’s the hard-nosed officer who gets “turned” and begins having visions of murder and mayhem flash before her eyes, building to an eventual twist that brings the idea full-circle. Another is the lightly structured two-season format the book has, with the end of volume three acting as a “season finale” before a time-jump and location change in volume four. I could easily see this getting turned into a cable show in this age of “Peak TV,” which only adds to the enjoyment of this book.
But let’s get one thing straight – none of this works if you don’t have an artist that can sell the gore. That’s why, despite Williamson’s twisted scripts, Henderson is the real hero of this book. Right from the opening image of the Nailbiter in action, a grotesque double-page spread that doesn’t shy away from a twisted reveal, Henderson shows why he is the perfect fit for this book. His characters look realistic enough that you feel the pain and suffering they go through during the investigation – both physical and emotional. His setting is also very Lynchian, as Buckaroo has all the earmarks of being a quaint, Pacific Northwest town, until some of the details begin to reveal hidden secrets. Like bugs churning beneath a flower bed.
There is the occasional guest artist brought in to draw a tie-in or one-shot throughout the series. Most notably is Emilio Laiso for a section of the Nailbiter / Hack/Slash special (a crossover that actually ends up being important to the mythology of the book). Each guest artist does his best at rendering the world around these killers, but none truly capture both the beauty and the gore like Henderson does.
This book isn’t without its flaws. It probably won’t end up on any “Best Of” lists, much to my chagrin. But in between heavy, character-focused stories that challenge readers, a fun story about flamboyant serial killers and the paths we walk is a fun palette-cleanser to binge. That’s why Nailbiter should be on everyone’s to-read list. At least, everyone who isn’t squeamish, that is.