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‘Obscura’: A Cleverly Unsettling Work of Gothic Horror

3.5 stars

Cover art of "Obscura."
Cover art of "Obscura." By Luke Cartwright
By Miranda Eng, Crimson Staff Writer

Looking for a quick read with a few charmingly disturbing twists? “Obscura,” a Gothic graphic novel born from a collaboration between writer Luke Cartwright and artist Lukasz Wnuczek, might be just the thing. Set in Van Diemen’s Land in the late 19th century, Cartwright and Wnuczek’s story follows an isolated man named William Morier whose father — the local undertaker — was ripped away from him in his youth and imprisoned for selling corpses to medical practitioners. When William stumbles upon Catherine White, a self-professed medium whom he’d known peripherally during childhood, he’s swept up in a whirlwind romance that comes to a sudden standstill upon receiving news of Catherine’s ectopic pregnancy. To raise money for the surgical procedure that would terminate the pregnancy to save Catherine’s life, the couple stages pictures of “spirits” using old photographic plates that still carry images of the Morier funeral home’s former patrons and tries to sell them to sentimental family members of the departed.

The pacing of “Obscura” is at times choppy and rushed, which is particularly obvious in the opening scenes when Cartwright and Wnuczek overturn a deluge of information on the reader in the space of only a few pages. After a few panels’ worth of expository dialogue establishing William’s family background, the setting abruptly shifts to the funeral home where William’s father is busy applying makeup to a cadaver, where it remains for less than three full pages before the authors cut again to a paranormal incident at Catherine White’s residence. Though the initial frequency of jumps in time and space can be explained by the fact that “Obscura” begins in medias res and must establish its cast of characters and the scope of its fictional world, it is nonetheless a clumsy, unengaging manner of introducing a story.

Another shortcoming of “Obscura” is its initial over-reliance on horror genre tropes, both verbal and visual, which causes it to come across as trying too hard to evoke fear in its readers. The early exposition features exaggerated, theatrical language that is more campy than terrifying: “The spectre of William Morier looms over Van Diemen’s Land like a sunset shadow, shifting and stretching and beckoning the darkness.” Similarly, the artwork in the first act of the plot also lacks subtlety in its attempts to induce a few shivers. For instance, a scene of William sitting in the mortuary late at night and talking aloud to corpses plays out across three consecutive panels where a shadowed figure gradually approaches from behind and claps a hand on William’s unsuspecting shoulder. It’s a classic jump scare sequence, but the element of surprise that grants it such effectiveness in horror films is lost in translation when adapted to the form of a graphic novel.

Nonetheless, once “Obscura” settles into its own rhythm and stops actively trying to horrify, it manages to create an atmospheric sense of eeriness that registers on a subconscious level. In fact, “Obscura” is most effective when it abandons dialogue altogether and takes full advantage of its visual elements to either silently magnify moments of tension across multi-page spreads, or surrealistically depict William’s increasingly troubled mental state. Wnuczek accomplishes both of the above in a riveting scene where William shoots an unsuspecting man with a gun hidden beneath the dark cloth over his camera and immediately sinks into a moral crisis, represented by a close-up of William’s eyes superimposed over a motley of savior figures like Jesus Christ and angels and ominous characters such as the Grim Reaper.

Certainly, the gradual introduction of mental instability and the transformation of William into an unreliable narrator is one of the greatest strengths in “Obscura.” The very presence of impending insanity helps ground the plot’s abundant supernatural motifs in a subtler kind of horror that is disturbing for its personal rawness. Beyond generating doubt regarding William’s sanity, Cartwright and Wnuczek cleverly create an additional layer of ambiguity by framing the events of the graphic novel as a submission to a pulp fiction magazine called “The Illustrated Crime Chronicle,” leaving the reader to question whether the entire work of “Obscura” is merely a tongue-in-cheek, meta representation of madness all along.

Despite its rocky beginning, “Obscura” is ultimately a worthwhile read for Gothic horror fans who enjoy a slow-burning, atmospheric eeriness.

—Staff writer Miranda Eng can be reached at

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