Rarely in discussions of apocalyptic fiction is friendship brought up. My personal observation is that the genre focuses on whatever topic is relevant in the current political discourse (i.e., Planet of the Apes). Whenever human interaction is brought up, it’s usually the worst ways possible. Many apocalyptic storytellers seem to think humanity’s negative qualities will intensify, any and all attempts at union leading to tragedy. For example, the moment a character in The Walking Dead shows the slightest shimmer of hope might as well be when a clock pops up to countdown to their grisly demise.
This brand of cynicism has gotten cliched. It’s far more original when an apocalyptic story shows people bonding and surviving. Soul To Call by Canadian cartoonist Katherine Lang explores the importance of friendship in a survival scenario. The narrative focuses on Avril Falk, a young woman searching for her father. She meets mercenary James O’Brian and timid welp Eli. All three have personal demons to face, but not as urgently as the literal demons around them. Cosmic monstrosities from another dimension have invaded the world, an event simply known as “The Fall”. Once densely populated cities are now crawling with hordes of terrors that destroy the mind and body of any living creature unlucky enough to cross their path. On top of that, a despotic religious, military organization called the Order wants to kidnap Eli and use his blood magic for nefarious purposes. It’s going to take the combined skills of the trio to survive. That is if they can trust each other.
Before the main plot begins, Soul To Call opens with a wordless prologue. There are no stacks of exposition captions to inform the reader what happened during “The Fall”. Instead, the reader is shown a sky–a series of panels of the sky, in fact. It slowly cracks until an unnatural red light burst out; dead bodies, ghoulish eyes, and occult symbolism emerge as a result. And then Avril wakes up. It’s an abstract opening, but at the same time suggests how the apocalyptic world came to be. In general, Soul To Call’s world-building mostly consists of this extreme “show, don’t tell” approach. It relies on imagery and, after the prologue, dialogue which is not clumsy exposition but organic conversation. It’s the type of approach that relies on the reader to be smart enough to put the pieces together.
Katherine Lang is able to approach this narrative style more easily than others given how strong her art is, especially when it comes to the setting. As Avril explores the desolate city, building walls are covered in graffiti. Some of it is occult symbolism that continuously appears throughout the series, particularly an eye similar to that of Osiris, Egyptian god of the dead. Mostly though, the graffiti consists of the dying words of people driven mad by the invading monsters. It helps the reader imagine how horrifying the events of “The Fall” were. People calling out for help, for their mother, or declaring they somehow deserved the punishment. If anything, this matters the most because it captures the pain and misery of what happened. It provokes the reader to understand the world on an emotional level as much as an empirical one. It also adds a layer to the cosmic style of horror reminiscent of H.P. Lovecraft, William Hope Hodgson, and Clark Ashton Smith. Like those legendary authors, the greatest terror of Soul To Call is what the reader cannot comprehend.
Indeed, the monsters of Soul To Call are absolutely terrifying in this sense. Their designs stem from a wide range of sources. Aside from the demi-gods of cosmic horror, there is also strong resemblance to the metaphorical beasts of Silent Hill, the rotting mutants of Resident Evil, and latex-bound ghouls of Clive Barker. There are dog-like creatures that seek human flesh; towering, angel-like giants called Striders that don’t want to cause any harm in particular, but getting in the middle of their path will assure certain death; and strange wall monsters called Clingers that lure you with a plea for help only to ensnare you into eternal torment. Most mysterious of all is a Shadow, a monster that appears to be wearing a gas mask and is composed mostly of tentacles. Its sole purpose is to hunt and kill its target with single-minded persistence.
Each of these creatures is designed to invoke some primal horror in humans. White skin like death, predatory appendages such as claws and fangs, constantly coated in blood, lingering shadows, and a presence that defies comprehension. In certain areas, there is fog where the creatures are more densely populated. Not only that, but regular humans that enter have their minds toyed with, seeing hostile manifestations of their inner demons. The world of Soul To Call is an actively hostile place, which means there is always tension. Terror is just waiting around the corner.
The colors are on a whole new level, amplifying every aspect of the already strong art. They are various shades of blue, purple, etc Their greatest quality is the glowing effect, most notable in establishing and long shots. It gives the paranoid feeling of an omnipresent, supernatural force. You can’t see it, but it’s always with you. As should come to no surprise, red is a frequently used color. The only thing as omnipresent as the demons is blood. There is blood on them, blood on corpses, walls, streets, occult symbols, on the living characters. There’s enough blood to fill an Olympic pool a hundred times over. Its presence is a much more expedient way of inducing terror in the reader. Surprisingly, there are moments where colors are used for heartwarming scenes. One in particular involves Avril, James, and Eli watching the night sky, admiring its beauty. The gentleness of the colors correlate with the fond feelings shared among the trio. Color not only looks good in Soul To Call, it adds an emotional atmosphere.
Where atmosphere, setting, and monster design are the art’s strongest qualities, human character design is its weakness. There is nothing particularly wrong with them, but they feel basic compared to everything else. The anime/manga influence is very evident, particularly the wide eyes and reduced facial features. At times, it feels like the characters merely resemble those from other stories. James O’Bryan is so similar to Leon Kennedy of Resident Evil, they could be brothers. Characters also have very awkward movement, particularly if viewed from behind. When a character runs, it doesn’t look like they’re running so much as floating. That said, I remember every single face and the names attached to those faces, and that is because of the very strong writing.
Each character has a distinct personality. Avril Flak is abrasive yet highly skilled in parkour and hand-to-hand combat. She also seems to have secrets, the kind that give her guilt-ridden nightmares. Eli is a complete pushover,but he also has a heart of gold and does his best to help others. His main skill is blood magic, often cutting himself to draw sigils for various spells. Most incredible is the fact he never seems to pass out from blood loss. He throws it around like cheap wine. James O’Bryan is the most mysterious, morally complex of the three. He seems to be operating on his own code for reasons known only to him. His motivations to work for the Order are not clear at all either than a paycheck. Then there are the two main antagonists, Eve Volkova and Marcus Mendoza. Right now, Mendoza seems just to be a sociopath that enjoys his work. Volkova, while cold-hearted and fanatically dedicated to the Order, has secrets of her own tied to the darkness she fights.
Secrets are the common element shared amongst these characters. They are all hiding something, and that’s what initially builds barriers between them, along with the paranoia of living in a hell world. Like many post-apocalyptic survival stories, scenes of running from and fighting hordes of monsters initiates feelings of mistrust. Normally, this inevitably leads to death and the breakdown of the community, no matter how much a well-intentioned protagonist tries to bring people together. It’s that overplayed, cynical philosophy of humanity’s darker nature winning in the end. Soul To Call veers in the opposite direction. As a scenario gets worse, characters are forced to work together, and they have to drop defenses in order to trust each other.
Avril, the loudest character, expresses the greatest mistrust. She is so focused on her own goal, any person is judged an immediate threat. Eli, the first person she meets, is treated like a nuisance. James O’Bryan is even more distrusted. Avril and Eli first meet him as a mercenary for the Order, and he is commanded to hold them prisoner. When monsters separate them from James’ employers, the group is forced to rely on each other. Their faults are amplified, but so are their useful qualities. As they work together more to survive, they can’t help but start letting their guards down, revealing however vaguely their secrets and insecurities. Instead of badgering, they comfort each other with pep talks and assurances. This eventually leads to the stargazing scene. No one says it out loud, but the trio feels a bond between them. They’re not yet at a point where they would call themselves friends, but working together and protecting each other is something they are now ready to do in a heartbeat. This is what makes Soul To Call unique and vastly more enjoyable than many post-apocalyptic stories. It knows that while disastrous scenarios can bring out the worst in humanity, we can also be at our best.
There is more going on here than any one review coul cover. It’s barely getting started, yet Soul To Call already has an extensive mythology. Unfortunately, the plot is taking very long to get to the juicier bits due to the pacing. Webcomics offer creators the freedom to decompress their stories in organic ways that direct market comics cannot. An average single issue from DC, Marvel, Image, and etc., ranges from 20-24 pages. These limits can be a real problem for story flow. On the other side of the coin, some webcomics decompress too much. There are scenes in Soul To Call that could be in cut in half. Chapter 5 is the most gratuitous in relation to this problem. It’s 111 pages long because of the amount of action happening and, ironically, slows the pace drastically down. A page or a few panels could be cut without losing much excitement.
Soul To Call is engaging in its colorful, gruesome art that envisions a truly hellish, post-apocalyptic landscape. Yet it also differentiates itself from the pack with incredibly unique characters that form strong bonds with each other. The series appeals to a sense of hope that is sorely lacking in the genre, and hopefully there will be similar tales to come. After all, the original meaning of apocalypse is not destruction but revelation. Perhaps that revelation is the greatest in humanity comes out in the darkest of times.