Welcome to Wednesday Whittling! This week I check out Nailbiter Volume 1 and use textual evidence to show how it explores the ego over five issues. The book is brought to us through Image Comics by writer Joshua Williamson and artist Mike Henderson. Check out the original comic at the end as a thank you for your time.
In particular, I’m looking at these issues because they’re what compose the first trade collection. Image always sells a book’s first five issues in a trade for $10, which is awesome because it shows they’re most concerned with getting you to read.
The combination of the cover art and title sold me on Nailbiter. A hand is coming down from the top of the cover toward a mouth at the bottom. A “nailbiter” is something inherently overwhelming — your team is about to win or lose in the final seconds, the cop who just pulled out behind you isn’t pulling you over. Your heart is trying to squeeze through your ribs. This is the kind of thing that makes a good story, and the creators are telling you up front they’re going to do it.
The story delivers. Just being a spectator to a nailbiter is enough to make your insides lurch. But being a participant summons the ego, requires it in order for you to come out on the other end.Nailbiter takes place in Buckaroo, Oregon, where nearly everyone is related to one of the 16 (16!) serial killers who have been born there over the last few generations. That means nearly everyone is a participant in their own personal nailbiter, fighting or trying to reconcile a legacy none of them understand or want.
Take Raleigh, for example. Raleigh is the grandson of Buckaroo’s first serial killer, the Book Burner. Raleigh shows his ego by partnering with it, as if they had a conversation and he agreed to let his ego be the conductor. We see this in issue 4 as it opens in a group therapy session. That’s a place where people decide to be most vulnerable. Instead of sitting in the circle, he’s standing against the wall with his arms crossed and hat pulled over his eyes.
His body language is confrontational by contrast. We could see that if we were just a fly on the wall, but when he says “isn’t it time we took the power back? To dig ourselves out of the hole [our ancestors] put us in?” we get to see his ego driving the train. This is a dude who runs a serial killer hobby store and wants to host “Killer Con,” a convention for serial killer enthusiasts. For whatever power he’s trying to take back, his ego is exercising one that effectively renders the emotions of others as a blanket over mud. It gets what it wants by impeding healing.
We see a different sense of ego with Morty the Mortician in issue 3. Rather than use it for aggression, he’s dismissive of it. When showing a body in his lab to two cops, the lights keep going out after they arrive. One of them asks what’s up, and Morty plainly says, “The lights flicker down here… anyway…welcome.” He accepts the reality around him, that he’s in a state-run facility which doesn’t get appropriate funding and that means he won’t always have what he needs.
It’s almost charming and shows that he’s actually capable of parking his ego. He does it of his own free will, even if he holds some disdain for why. Morty sees a difference between what he wants and imposing his will, unlike Raleigh. But reliable lighting is essential. For as cool as Morty plays it he isn’t helping. Buckaroo is a town that warrants caution and the lights being kept on and the doors being locked. It only pushes someone’s heart harder as it kneads their rib cage. Stop being so dumb, Morty!
It’s our title character who shows us what it’s like to be smart about ego. Edward Charles Warren is the Nailbiter, the 16thserial killer of Buckaroo and the one who put them in the national limelight. He was somehow acquitted and has been home, drawing ire and suspicion while living a weird-but-not-criminal life.
In issue 5, he goes to meet Raleigh at his hobby store, as he’s a silent partner. Coincidentally, the same cops who were in Morty’s lab are also going to talk to Raleigh. The cops end up getting attacked by this demon-like creature that looks like it came straight from Carcosa. Warren actually saves them by fighting and pushing the killer to another room. While the cops are stuck under a book case, he confronts the Carcosa being, asking, “What’s your angle, eh?” Ever smooth, he doesn’t start yelling or punching blind. Everything he’s done in the scene has been deliberate. He and his ego are always in stride together — at peace with and respectful of each other — even if it means he’s living what others would call a despicable life.
Now, the issue ends soon after that scene. We’re left with Warren, an apparent killer, not being able to understand another killer’s possible motives. That means one of two things: either this silent demon is a level of perverse beyond serial killers, or Warren is actually innocent of murder and the demon is just a normal monster. Either way, we’re left with our senses overwhelmed and know that there’s more to ego than just what we’ve been shown.
Nailbiter 23 actually comes out today — there are four trade volumes making up the first 20 issues. Digital versions are only $4.99 each if you want to catch up. Today’s issue is also only the third in a new arc, so you could jump in and not be so confused you can’t enjoy it. Image books are often a total package of visual and verbal storytelling, and Nailbiter is no exception. As uncomfortable as it makes me, I’m going to keep reading.
And here’s your original comic!