Witness The Horrors Of ‘The Deep’ In Aftershock’s The Replacer

by Noah Sharma

The Replacer is a unique story in a unique format, the first of Aftershock’s graphic novellas. Based on writer Zac Thompson‘s real-life experience, the book follows the Beharrell family as their jovial patriarch suffers a massive and unexpected stroke. Recovery is long and taxing and adaption to the new normal more so, but, for nine year old Marcus, the worst part is that no one else can see the Replacer. A Buddhist demon, the Replacer lives inside Marcus’ father and, though no one believes him, he knows that it caused the stroke so that it can devour his father from within.

Primary Cover by Arjuna Susuni and Dee Cunniffe

What results is an unusual horror story, full of sincere emotion. Indeed, from top to bottom The Replacer is packed to the brim with joy, terror, and unease. From the moment a smile first slides across Gary’s face, you immediately know the relationship between Gary and Marcus. You can feel the ease and connection between them and seeing the corner of the classic Tohoscope logo exemplifies the way that this story knows what details to include. In fact, Thompson does a fantastic job of telling the story from the perspective of a child, including all of those insights and invisible realities that children easily grasp and completely miss.
This delicate balance is essential to the mystery of whether the Replacer exists or not. At times its all too understandable that adults think that Marcus is just having trouble adjusting, for Thompson ensures that all of Marcus’ reactions make sense in a non-supernatural context. However, there’s just something off about the way the adults are acting as well and this sense of dread, often without evidence, that helps the story feel balanced and relatable, putting you in the same headspace as Marcus and narrowly avoiding the feeling that the real-life issues are driving the narrative.
As the story unfolds, Thompson reveals the reality of the traditional family dynamic we’re introduced to. This was never a healthy family. People were already leaning on eachother too much or not getting what they needed, but it was balanced, however precariously. Gary’s stroke throws that all out the window, and watching the various characters react, ignorant of and seperate from the Replacer, is some of the most intriguing content that the story provides.
Interior art by Arjuna Susuni and Dee Cunniffe

Father Mervin, for instance, proves a good priest when Marcus first confronts him, offering words of comfort and rational readings of scripture, however he too is dealing with an illness and you can feel his needs and his agenda creeping in as he turns on the bond that Marcus and Gary share. Touched as he is by the Replacer, is that reason enough to distrust him, or is he merely a flawed servant of God? And Rachel is a tremendous character who very easily could have supported her own story, but I suspect that that was the point.
Thompson knows how to make things feel wrong. Whether that means watching adults ignore Marcus’ concerns or hearing Marcus say things that make sense to him but are kind of horrifying if he’s wrong or, perhaps most of all, noticing little contradictions in the rules that Marcus has uncovered that he hasn’t or won’t notice, there is a sense of dread that contrasts excellently against the relatively low stakes of the story. Perhaps because it is based in lived experience, Thompson doesn’t try to force things. It may be hugely important to Marcus but the world goes on without him and the ticking clock is never artificially sped up, preferring that oddly adult unease of knowing that time is a factor but on a long scale, especially one that has gone on so long it may have already run out.
The Replacer has a very old school, kind of Twilight Zone vibe to it and, accordingly, it really all comes down to the last page. The actual plot of this comic is very much a short story and likely could have been trimmed down to make it one, but the choice to publish it as a novella proves very wise, as that extra time provides space to explore the characters and drag out the sense of dread just enough to make things uncomfortable. At times the story can drag or your doubt can dissolve to the point where you’re technically not sure what the truth is but you’re afraid that you know too early and that’s a shame, but the gravity of familiar tropes is offset by the that wrongness, the little deviations that don’t work. It keeps you wondering if the ways in which the story conforms to your expectations are poor writing or a calculated strike and, in the end, it comes together in a very satisfying way. Subsequent reads may reveal just how much of the book is misdirection, but its a wonderful use and misuse of narrative convention that provides just a little more than the typical version of this story and balances its oddities with a powerful conclusion.
Which is not to say that the book is perfect. Though many of its oddities and foibles are, or at least appear to be, intentional meta-narrative attacks on the reader, there’s no denying that The Replacer is not always a clear comic. For instance, someone rips out a page from a book as someone off panel derides its contents and it’s not immediately clear whether its the naysayer doing the ripping, stealing away the information, or Marcus taking it home to save. There are a lot of little moments like this that hurt the book and it’s unclear whether the problem originates in the script or the art. Even that crucial final page feels disconnected between words and actions, giving it a stilted and ambiguous edge. There’s also some expository text that’s paraphrased from wikipedia and reads like it, which only makes it weirder when Thompson seemingly makes up a dramatic version of a real ritual (if there is truth to his version I can’t find any reference to it).
Arjuna Susini and Dee Cunniffe handle the art, bringing a sketchy style that suits the story very well. Both art and color convey the mundanity of the situation without being limited by reality and the paradoxical weight of shadows make the numerous sequences at night and in the dark a distinct trait of the book.
Interior art by Arjuna Susuni and Dee Cunniffe

For its many strengths, the art is notably inconsistent, depicting some moments with sharp, stabbing sincerity and taking others into the uncanny valley. So, while some moments are conveyed with impressive specificity through their combination of strong, simple linework and carefully hatched detail, others feel cold and blank. Even this seemingly negative quality swings back and forth, sometimes grasping the horror of a child looking at a parent that no longer seems human, all blank eyes or ungainly limbs, but other times applied to that child himself. There are also issues of clarity, though, as I mentioned it’s hard to say whether this was born in Susini’s interpretation or Thompson’s script.
Interior art by Arjuna Susuni and Dee Cunniffe

The Replacer itself is an eerie design; a mass of arms and legs reaching and galloping from one spidery pose to the next, all topped by a conical crown of eyes. The whole thing has an appropriately medical aura about it, with branching capilaries of limbs and a head like a diseased lung, as if it’s all the result of a Rorschach test applied using medical diagrams instead of inkblots. The design is novel and could easily have fallen flat, even in this style, if not for Susini’s care in depicting it. Keeping the Replacer unsettling is a dance that succeeds largely on the back of Susini’s choice of poses and the careful shading of its body.
The Replacer is a particular and affecting read that makes brilliant use of doubt, fear, and self-knowledge to craft a vital, wriggling tale of horror. Both art and writing have moments of inconsistency and the book isn’t usually trying to look beautiful, but the creative team offer a classic taste of sci-fi horror with all the tact and meaning of classic Twilight Zone, but even more personal stakes and a fantastic use of the extra time its graphic novella format allows it. Like the classic Rod Serling creations, The Replacer really is a story you should read at least once, even if its not your usual fare.
The Replacer is currently available in comic shops from Aftershock Comics.

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