Indie Binge: Intrusive Thoughts #1 – A Manic Horror/Mystery Comic that Doesn’t Care About The Rules™

Intrusive Thoughts #1

Written by – Ant Donovan-Stoke

Art by – DNS

Lettering by – Joni Hagg

With cover art by Rich Ragsdale, Eduardo Guzman Wilson, Llane Lloyd

CONTENT WARNING: This article discusses suicide.

Slow comics aren’t generally to my taste. You can probably tell that if you read any of my own stuff. Depending on how fast you read, you can breeze through a 22-23 page comic in the space of about ten minutes, which is pretty fast for something that costs upwards of £3 per issue. Consider that you could conceivably buy an entire novel which will last you for hours and hours for £7 or £8.

So from the reader’s perspective £3 sounds like a lot for what they get. Of course, a novel doesn’t have the kind of expenses that a comic does, and so that price isn’t unreasonable. But it does mean that, personally, I find that a comic whose story moves quite slowly is over a bit too quickly. It’s the reason I like to cram as many things going on into as little space as possible.

It’s clear that writer Ant Donovan-Stokes vehemently disagrees, and after having read Intrusive Thoughts #1, I can’t say I fault him for it. Not only is the comic a little on the longer side at 28 pages, although this comic moves at a glacial pace the majority of the time it really works, because it makes the moments where the comic suddenly accelerates all the punchier. Allow me to explain.

An intrusive thought, besides being the title of this comic, is a term medical health professionals use to describe a thought that seems to have come from outside your own mind which is distressing or unpleasant. We’re talking thoughts like “go on, just drive into that oncoming traffic”, or “things would be easier if you just killed yourself”. I only learned the term myself over the past year, in relation to my own mental health, and so when I first saw the title of this comic I was instantly interested in reading it.

So going back to Intrusive Thoughts: the comic. It follows Tyler, an extremely troubled American secondary school student. His parents went missing a long time ago, along with his memories of his early childhood. The only clues he has to their whereabouts are a photograph and a snow globe, and his nightmares are haunted by the spectre of a enigmatic monster.

A great deal of the plot is simply Tyler talking out his problems with various professionals: a therapist, his school counsellor (and anyone who’s talked about their mental health with one of those knows how helpful they are).

Which is generally not a great way to move the story forward: you’re supposed to show, not tell, after all. But in this case, Intrusive Thoughts succeeds in portraying how underwhelming the experience of receiving therapy can often be. You have this problem, and so you visit a licensed professional, and they fix you, right?

Well, no. It often takes several attempts to find the right therapist or method of therapy for you, and even when you do find the right service, progress is never made overnight. When you’re at your wits’ end, this is mind numbingly frustrating. Right from the first scene we see Tyler speaking to a therapist it’s clear that this is a frustration he is well used to. The dialog between Tyler and those attempting to help him comes across as authentic, but remains snappy enough that the plot continues to be driven forward.

To Stokes’s credit, therapy isn’t demonised either. Yes, it can be frustrating, but generally speaking the field of therapy is intended to help people, despite the shortcomings it has. It would have been easy for Stokes to portray the adults in Tyler’s life as uncaring or even outright antagonistic, but they don’t come across this way. They may not have all the answers, and that’s a real source of perturbation for Tyler, but even he seems to know that it’s not necessarily anything they’re to blame for.

I’ll say this for Tyler: he shows more restraint than I ever did at his age.

 Something else I noticed about the ‘slow’ scenes is DNS’s great use of big, chunky gutters. In Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, McCloud talks about the necessity of a reader to imply both motion and time between the panels of a comic, in the white, black, or other border separating those panels, referred to as the comic’s ‘gutter’. McCloud points out that because of this necessity, a wider gutter can be utilised to infer that a greater amount of time has passed between the panels which it separates.

We see this technique used by DNS frequently, especially in the slower parts of the comic. Reading these scenes, I can only think that DNS’s intent was to portray the long, awkward silences which accompany a difficult conversation. Some of the pages of this comic feel as if they’re almost 50% illustration, 50% gutter, which sounds like an absolutely horrible idea, but DNS has rocked the boat here, and found great success in doing so.

It just occurred to me that “thick gutters” sounds like it’s supposed to be an innuendo. I swear it’s not though.

Of course, I mentioned before that the comic is not all slow, and those moments where the pace deviates are really where the gradual story telling pays off. One second, you’re reading a comic about people sitting around and talking, you blink, and before you know it: GRAPHIC VIOLENCE. Blink again, and we’re back to fairly sedate, if melancholy, scenes. The sudden switch in pace is very shocking, and pointedly: intrusive.

It seems obvious to me that what the comic is doing here is simulating the experience of an intrusive thought for us, and it’s an impressively clever way to do so. You will find that as Stokes’s script increases momentum at the drop of a hat, DNS’s panelling also changes to match. Gone are the regimented, grid-style layouts of the talky scenes. Here to replace them are disorderly, vertical affairs which give the reader the feeling of being pulled into a downward spiral.

In fact, DNS isn’t at all shy about switching up his pallet to keep us on our toes. Interspersed with the dark colours of the ‘real world’ are pages depicting Tyler’s sketchbook. Here the art is essentially just linework, with some colour here and there where Tyler’s hand can be seen completing his drawings or where he’s left a rubber on his sketchpad. The variation of graphical style really gives Intrusive Thoughts a sense of being all over the place, but in a refreshingly good way. It’s not unfocused: it’s manic, unstable, and it leaves you not knowing what’s coming next. Which is really the job of a horror mystery, isn’t it?

Well, Intrusive Thoughts #1 doesn’t really offer much in the way of answers, but it certainly raises a lot of questions. What happened to Tyler’s parents? Who or what is this thing that haunts his night terrors? What’s up with the snow globe? It’s important enough to make an appearance on the cover after all. Personally, I’m going with the Scooby Doo principle and blaming everything on the first person Tyler talks to, this guy:

He’s just got an untrustworthy face, man.

But until issue #2 comes out, we’ll just have to keep guessing. In the meantime, I’d encourage you to pick up a copy of #1. The Kickstarter is now finished, and so it might be a while before it’s available for purchase again, but I’d suggest following Ant Donavon-Stokes on Twitter for updates. While you wait, why not leave a comment below telling me who YOU think dunnit?

If you believe you may suffer from intrusive thoughts then I would encourage you to learn more about them here. For UK readers, if you are in a crisis situation remember you can call Samaritans on 116 123. If you or someone else’s safety is in immediate danger, call 999 for emergency services. For internal readers, please use your local equivalents.

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Zip is self-published by Mike Scrase, Bristol UK. © Mike Scrase 2023. ISSN 2976-8721 (print) 2976-8721 (online). No similarity between the names, characters and institutions depicted in Zip with any real life names, persons, or institutions is intended. Any such similarities are purely coincidental. Printed in the UK by Stuart Lloyd Gould.