At first glance, Emily Carroll’s work feels far afield from how many would consider “horror comics” to look; her cartooning, which first appeared online in 2010, bears little resemblance to either the tightly rendered line work and gother-than-thou attitude of a Bernie Wrightson or a Jose Gonzalez, whose work on DC’s Swamp Thing and Warren’s Vampirella, respectively, set the tone for what many comic readers from the past four decades expect from the genre.
That’s not to say that Carroll eschews a gothic feel — anything but. As anyone familiar with her Through the Woods, Beneath the Dead Oak Tree or When I Arrived at the Castle would say, Carroll’s astonishingly atmospheric work draws from a number of similar influences as the old guard — Carroll shows a clear influence of 19th century woodcuts, just as Wrightson does; she simply takes that influence in a less literal direction, choosing to evoke the textures in new forms and with more abstract execution — and hews closely, in terms of subject matter, to fairy tales… not to mention something she’s termed, with no small amount of humor, “the Southern Ontario Gothic” — a reference to where she was born, and the setting for a number of her stories
It’s worth noting that Carroll’s writing has been compared to Edgar Allen Poe, which only deepens that gothic connection even further. Who, really, can rival Poe for that good time scary goth stuff? Perhaps the Brothers Grimm, to whom she’s also been likened, in terms of the fairy tale origins and nature of her stories. Suffice to say, when it comes to all things horror stories, she’s in particularly good company.
For all her affection for and drawn influence from the past, Carroll’s visuals, however, speak to the present day. Stylistically, her characters and objects are close to webcomic peers such as Kate Beaton (Hark! A Vagrant) or Dylan Meconis (Queen of the Sea), with influences from animation and classic magazine illustration that, ironically, speak to a contemporary stylistic trend. Her approach to panel layout and pacing, meanwhile, is something that speaks directly to working outside of print publication — His Face All Red, her breakthrough comic of a decade ago, was constructed in such a way that Carroll’s use of what Scott McCloud calls the “infinite canvas” of webcomics controlled the pace of the reader’s experience; other projects, such as Margot’s Room, are so reliant on the webcomic medium and the way it allows the audience to interact with the story, that it could only exist in that particular format.
This isn’t to suggest that Carroll’s work only succeeds online; she’s published a number of traditional print works — including When I Arrived at the Castle from Koyama Press and Beneath the Dead Oak Tree from ShortBox, as well as several others — and in those, shown herself a master of using the page turn as a method of playing with tension and expectation on the reader’s part. Again pointing to the fact that Carroll is very much an artist of today, however, her print projects have come from either mainstream book publishers or small press shops, both of which offer opportunities for audiences that the so-called “mainstream comic industry” could never manage — as well as displaying a willingness to support creative decisions that traditional comic publishers would shy away from.
In terms of its creation, Carroll’s work is particularly contemporary. Unlike creators who choose to work either entirely digitally or entirely using analog tools, Carroll changes her approach depending on the project, combining media for the best effect as necessary. “With a lot of the materials I use or how I approach the art, I will change what I’m doing based on artists that I’ve seen or things I want to try out,” she said in a 2014 interview. “It is usually influenced from other types of cartoonists, if they are using a certain type of brush treatment or something, I might try to emulate it. I won’t do it well, but it will usually transform into something of my own.”
Even work created digitally is, in itself, a mixture of time periods; Carroll, in the same interview, talked about using Photoshop to lay flat colors over ink washes that she’s created traditionally, because “it helps make it look a little more organic […it has] a bit of texture so that it’s not so dark and glaring.”
Carroll’s stand-alone stories — including fan favorites such as Out of Skin about a young women haunted by the collective presence of corpses; as well as Some Other Animal’s Meat, The Hole The Fox Did Make, and The Worthington — are still available to read on her website for free, boasting in beautiful inks and violent splashes of color, the longevity and of her creations.
A curious but winning mixture of the classic and the contemporary, Carroll’s work is consistently executed with a confidence and intelligence that have, since her debut, won over audiences beguiled by her ability to make creating charming, creepy stories look effortless. She might, on first glance, seem to exist outside what conventional comics wisdom would consider the “horror comic” tradition, but her work is something that will continue to resonate with readers long after she herself is but a ghost.
Carroll’s work can be summed up in many ways, to include unsettling, striking, or satisfying haunting; but at the end of each story, her work can best be described as — quite simply — timeless.