A huge eyeball hovers over an army base, bathing it in a sickly green aura. A missile, tipped with orange tentacles, streaks through the air on wispy blue-and-yellow wings. A duck-headed specter in a yellow trench coat silently haunts the narrow hallways of a dark bunker.
In Ill Vacation, the horrors of war manifest as literal monsters. Set at a US base on Easter Island during the height of World War II in 1942, the comic follows three sets of characters who must deal with the stalkers. Two American soldiers are tasked with protecting a haunted base and quickly find themselves overwhelmed. A pair of German prisoners of war attempt to escape, but find themselves trapped. A mysterious stranger follows the chaos from a rowboat at sea and prepares to intervene. The comic drips with dread. It’s a different flavor of war story: humans versus war itself, rather than human versus humans. And sinister supernatural beings make riveting (and creepy!) substitutes to the gas canisters, bombs, and bullets usually used on the battlefield.
Writer Steve Thompson, artist Gonzalo Ruggieri, and letterer Hassan Otsame-Elhaou do an excellent job creating an ominous atmosphere that’s both fantastical and compelling. Thompson’s writing wastes no time with clunky exposition or long explanations, deliberately leaving the rules of the world unsaid. Instead, readers are plunged into the story in medias res. We’re given hints of impending horrors: a general grimly comments that the mysterious lights surrounding the base means the war has taken “a bad turn,” the German prisoners worriedly fret about “energy flooding out. More than a thousand atomic bombs.” The specters haunting the unsuspecting humans are similarly unexplained, remaining motionless and faceless- until they suddenly and violently unleash chaos. The result is a tightly-paced, suspenseful comic that’s steeped in mystery and urgency. And sure, the comic’s fantastical elements can be confusing to follow at first without backstory or commentary, but the subtlety of the storytelling and the suspenseful narrative will reward the reader’s patience.
Ruggieri’s surreal art style is critical to creating the comic’s dark, fantastical atmosphere. Soft, blended pastels blur the line between reality and dreams, softening facial details into blankness, monsters into staticky darkness. The distinctive and vivid color palette for each scene- bright oranges and purples in a dusk sky surrounding the base, chilling blues in the underground bunkers, darkness for a rough sea at night- heightens the comic’s feeling of unreality. Combined with a bizarrely unique choice of imagery (room sized snails with skull shells, mini beach balls flying by on wings, floating white-robed faceless figures), the art style creates an unworldly visual feast that’s simultaneously disturbing and fascinating.
As a historical fantasy comic, Ill Vacation #1 is a dark and original twist on the war genre; as a psychological drama, it’s gripping and intense. The visuals are striking, the atmosphere delightfully creepy, and the worldbuilding fascinating. All in all, it’s a surreal read that’s sure to chill and enthrall, leaving readers eager for the next installment.