When my copy of Harbor Moon arrived I just held it and looked at the cover for a few minutes. This was out of character for me. When some new and interesting werewolf item arrives on my desk I normally handle it the way a raccoon approaches a closed bin: there are things inside I want, delicious, intriguing things, and the outside is merely an impediment to the sating of my hunger. This book, though, wouldn’t let itself be torn open. I simply had to hold it, enjoying its satisfying matte cover stock, its oversized dimensions and the vivid red splatter on the front. Later, after reading it, one of my first thoughts was that if Harbor Moon’s contents had been as confident and vivid as its covers, it would have been a great book instead of a good one.
When condensed down to a synopsis, Harbor Moon’s premise doesn’t sound like it’s breaking much new ground. Timothy Vance is drawn to an isolated Maine town after receiving a phone call from a man claiming to be his long-lost father, but upon arriving in Harbor Moon, the man is nowhere to be found and Timothy gets tangled in the town’s dangerous secrets– secrets that involve him more than he knows. At first I felt like I’d heard similar stories before, and in fact I got Harbor Moon confused with the Syfy show Haven, which is also about an orphaned protagonist who visits a mysterious Maine town and becomes entangled in its secrets. (In my defense, I heard about both of them on the same day.) What I learned is that it’s foolish to judge a book by its back cover teaser copy.
Writers Ryan Colucci and Dikran Ornekian tell a story that’s comfortably familiar rather than derivative, and so self-contained and well-paced that it reads like a tightened-up film adaptation of a longer, less focused work. I was reminded several times of The Wrong Night in Texas, which has a similarly confrontational “you think you can predict things but you’re WRONG” vibe, although Texas‘s twists were delivered via manic episodes of hyper-violence and Harbor Moon’s surprises are instead revealed in tense, nightmarish languor. This dream-like atmosphere is expertly balanced by the dialog’s bright jabs of lucidity – there are longish sections of exposition that never get tiresome or tedious, and multi-page passages where a single sentence is successfully employed to keep the narrative thread intact. Characters that seem flat when they’re introduced become fully-realized and carefully, confidently articulated. In the hands of lesser writers this material could have been predictable, or worse, boring, but Colucci and Ornekian keep the reader on their toes until the end.
Artist Pawel Sambor (and supporting artist Nikodem Cabala) worried me at first. In places the artwork’s lines are frustratingly inconsistent– many of the male characters suffer from the same square-jaw & crew-cut look, perspectives are a little wonky at times, and in panels where there’s a lot of inking to be done, things look unbalanced. The drawing style changes every few pages, cycling through hard-edged lines with stark shadows, softer and richer lines with gradated shadows, and even a few pages where the lines are merely implied through contrast. If Harbor Moon was a black and white publication, these issues would be problematic, but Harbor Moon is in full colour, and the colouring work might be the best I’ve ever seen in a graphic novel.
Every page feels like it should be wet with something: water, sweat, blood, animal saliva, clinging mist. The dreamlike quality of the story is enhanced tenfold by super-saturated washes, texture overlays both diaphanous and grimy, pools of the deepest, subtlest blacks and gradients whose boundaries seem to shift as the eye moves across the page. There are panels and even entire pages where the hard black inks are traded for what looks like coloured pencil or conté, and when combined with the vivid colours, the results are simply gorgeous. And when the werewolves appear (they’re scarce at first but by the end there’s no shortage), the inconsistency disappears entirely: the lines are as confident, savage and graceful as the the creatures they render; the colour as graphic and brutal as the violence it depicts. It’s almost as though the scenes involving werewolves are reality, and everything else is a feverish hallucination.
Harbor Moon seems like a depiction of someone’s dream– a dream constantly on the brink of becoming a nightmare. There are a lot of factors at play, and not all of them are strictly under control– the originality of the story doesn’t make itself clear right away, and the artwork, though beautifully coloured, suffers from bouts of schizophrenia. In the end, though, I believe these imperfections add character, rather than detracting from the whole. There’s a lot to like here; the writing is sharp, and when the visuals work, they work beautifully. Harbor Moon is a good graphic novel, and when its creators exercise their confidence, it’s great.
Buy, borrow or skip?
Buy if you’re all about horror comics or werewolves, and if you like the idea of a lush-looking oversized graphic novel on your coffee table. Borrow if you’re a comics fan first and a werewolf fan second; you’ll want to see if the elements mix in a way that grabs you.