RED FEAR, by Liam Francis Walsh
Liam Francis Walsh’s masterful debut graphic novel, “Red Scare,” is set in the fictional town of Clinker’s Corners during the height of the Cold War, when most Americans believed communists had infiltrated their institutions and neighborhoods. Ironically, anyone with a different set of values was seen as an enemy, bringing the American way of life dangerously close to the Soviet way of life. Fear of being accused of communist affiliation led to a conformist attitude that permeated American society. Outward “normality” has become the only acceptable form of social behavior.
But if normality is the norm, how can a young girl with polio and tottering on a pair of crutches ever fit in? Peggy Monroe, the heroine of “Red Scare”, is isolated. Her peers taunt her, her twin brother ignores her, her mother is depressed, and her father, a Korean War veteran, is an amputee with PTSD. If all that isn’t traumatic enough for Peggy, America is on the brink of a nuclear confrontation with Russia, UFOs are roaming the skies, and ruthless FBI agents will stop at nothing to locate a glowing red tubular artifact that allows its possessor to fly at incredible heights and speeds. Walsh, a New York cartoonist and picture book author, conjures up a world familiar to older fans of science fiction, film noir, and True Crime comics of the era, but he does it with such vigor and enthusiasm that young readers will turn pages at a speed rivaling that of the mysterious artifact.
The story – well-crafted, intense, unpredictable – offers many breathtaking settings, but the real strength of the novel is Peggy’s gradual transformation from a wronged and explosive character to a selfless and courageous one. Her initial desire to be like everyone else is so all-consuming that she puts herself and others in danger. In those moments, her inner compass points in the wrong direction, so she’s surprised when her new and only friend, Jess, accuses her of selfishness.
Peggy’s character transformation is nuanced and believable, as it unfolds in her relationships with family and friends. It is from them that Peggy eventually learns to seek morally right solutions instead of quick and reckless ones. But this transformation comes at a huge cost: she must survive increasingly terrifying encounters with a seemingly indestructible stranger, an unhinged FBI agent, and the neighborhood bullies.
Walsh’s jaw-dropping action sequences are reminiscent of detective comics by American great duo Jack Kirby and Joe Simon, while his characters’ facial expressions and expressive body language will remind you of Hergé’s “The Adventures of Tintin.” . The inking of the panels, with its dramatic interplay of light and shadow, falls squarely within the tradition, but one singular creative decision places Walsh above his influences: his use of color. Instead of adhering to naturalistic coloring, Walsh changes his color palette in sequences according to the emotional state of its characters. The tension between realistic inking and symbolic coloring is not unlike the tension between text and subtext in well-written dialogue.
Walsh’s pace is also remarkable. An individual panel may contain dialogue from multiple characters simultaneously; a single line; or a minute of silence. Demonstrating the impressionistic volatility of a catchy yet nuanced symphony, “Red Scare” is a virtuoso performance.
Eugene Yelchin is the author of the dark mystery “Spy Runner” and, more recently, “The Genius Under the Table: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain.”
RED FEAR, by Liam Francis Walsh | 240 pages | graphics | Cloth, $24.99. Paper, $14.99. | 8 to 12 years old