The cover of Frontier #6, Emily Carroll’s issue of the Youth in Decline artist showcase, presents a set of images concerning the death of Ann Herron, a Canadian urban legend of Carroll’s own invention. Readers see a country house, two women, a ghostly hand rising through carpet, and more. Carroll has arranged the images at slants, as if dropping photographs onto a table—one image partially obscures another, with yet another image one level higher. This is what an urban legend looks like: a narrative mosaic. People add tiles; people adjust tiles; people remove tiles. Storytellers complement one another and undermine one another. Frontier #6 approximates this process—accounts of Ann Herron’s death (and afterlife) compete and mutate throughout the comic’s pages.
Ann Herron lived alone after the passing of some family members and the marriage of her sister. One night in 1934, someone entered Herron’s bedroom and struck her with a hatchet, the first part of a protracted assault that ended with Herron’s death in the parlor. This is the seed of the Ann Herron legend—or at least one version of it. Carroll quickly complicates the telling of the legend, moving between black-and-white spreads and pastel-colored spreads to delineate different storytellers.
The text accompanying Carroll’s black-and-white spreads reads like a secondhand (or thirdhand) account of the Herron murder. Contemporaneous, maybe; could be someone from the same town: “Henry Stratham would let you into the Herron place after it happened … And for an extra fee, he’d sell you a handkerchief and you could dip it in the blood … Because they say Ann Herron’s blood, IT NEVER DRIED.” This narrator gains a kind of authority by way of proximity to the murder, and at first, he or she is the reader’s only guide. Later black-and-white spreads maintain the narrator’s tone—a kind of familiar omniscience—but Carroll takes steps to unsettle her readers.
In the second black-and-white spread, the narrator provides some background about the Herron family, and (Carroll’s drawings of) photos complement each line. But black splatter covers the photos of family members next to mentions of their deaths. The spread doesn’t indicate whether these splatters are the work of the narrator or the work of another party. How many storytellers are active in these pages? Can we say for sure? (Do we count the photographer?) From early on, Carroll shares new information with readers while also shaking their interpretive footing, and the comic is spookier for this induced confusion. Even the black-and-white approach is both a way to set tone and a means of handicapping readers. (Are the black smears blood? We can’t say.)
The comic’s next black-and-white spread once again features a layer of violent splatter upon an orderly composition. Readers find a floor plan for Ann Herron’s home, along with a narrator’s room-by-room description of Ann’s murder. (The narration is written in the same hand as the previous B&W spreads; Carroll varies her lettering for the pastel spreads.) The white splatter atop the floor plan’s black negative space complements the narrator’s text, signifying Herron’s blood and encouraging readers to trace Herron’s final minutes along the floor plan. Or a possible version of Herron’s final minutes. Here again, the layers of Carroll’s composition remind readers that the telling of an urban legend is a group activity.
Carroll’s pastel spreads focus on the (fictional) present-day status of the Ann Herron legend. Mainly, it’s the inspiration for a slumber party game in which people try to summon Herron’s ghost. The first page of these more colorful spreads even features some instructions: “TO PLAY ANN-by-the-BED YOU WILL NEED THE FOLLOWING.”
The next pastel-palette spread includes, at left, four illustrations of Ann Herron, each based on the account of a different person who attempted to summon her ghost. Carroll puts the witnesses in competition through her juxtaposition of the images—a coherent likeness of the Herron ghost does not emerge from the four pictures. The right page features one speaker (seen, like the two girls on the cover, from below the eye line) sharing his account. Carroll uses a three-by-three grid here, with a new kind of splatter (purple on purple) appearing as the speaker loses his composure, amplifying the heightened emotions within the middle tier. Although the splatter makes the speaker’s account more vivid, it doesn’t bolster the account’s credibility—this is more induced confusion.
A few color spreads later, readers finally encounter a narrator who will meet them in the eye. This character self-identifies as the author of the book about the Herron murder’s occult trappings, reaching for cred in a way other narrators have not. But here too (on the page not shown below), Carroll gives readers the opportunity to question the newest speaker’s expertise. The spread suggests a path of thinking about the Herron killing, but the sort of path that might appeal mainly to the lost.
The Frontier reader’s inability to rely on any one narrator compounds the general creepiness of issue six. This is a kind of game playing with a purpose, in other words. Carroll previously established her talent for atmosphere and suspense in works such as the short story collection Through the Woods. The revelation of Frontier #6 is her treatment of scary stories as composite creations—a weaponized treatment. Voices multiply within this brief comic to an alarming effect. Carroll’s issue of Frontier is a much shorter release than Through the Woods, but it should not be considered a minor entry in her body of work. It may be the best comic she has made to date.