Emily Carroll: Making Space for a Story

(Estimated reading time: 5 minutes)

I don’t remember exactly where I first heard about author and illustrator Emily Carroll. I know that it must have been an online article, a review for her horror comic anthology Through the Woods. But like I said, I don’t remember the review at all. I just remember the artwork. It was this piece:

A young girl in bed looking at a shadowy wolf outside her window. It drools and tells her, "You must be lucky to avoid the wolf every time...but the wolf...the wolf only needs enough luck to find you once."

I saw this and I was gone. Just completely invested in whatever Emily Carroll was doing. I spent the next few hours of that day (a sunny spring Saturday at the beach, to continue our trend of experiencing horror in unlikely settings) hunched over the family laptop and devouring all the comics on her website, emcarroll.com

I did end up buying Through the Woods later that summer after I justified the cost to my frugal high schooler self, and I still crack open its covers about once a year. Considering Halloween is just two weeks out, it seemed like a great time for the annual rereading. 

There’s a lot to love in Carroll’s work, both in print and online. When she uses color, it’s always so rich that, subconsciously, I’m worried that the ink will smear on my fingers. Carroll does novel things with old tropes—creepy dolls, bodysnatchers, nightmares, Bluebeard—and her fluid, organic art style easily transforms into, well, rot. I mean, look at this:

A young blonde woman looks at the viewer. Bright red worms spill out around her eyes, through her nostrils, and out of her mouth.
Ma’am you uh, you have some schmutz on your face

The thing I love most, though, is Carroll’s use of space. She does this really cool thing where her words are inseparable from the rest of her illustration. I know this isn’t a new idea, text as image, and that there are whole art movements about it (although I’ve only taken one art history class, and I’m not sure how reliable it was—we only talked about Frida Kahlo and Georgia O’Keefe in relation to their husbands’ work, sooo). 

But anyway. I like it. I think it’s neat. Like, check out this spread from “A Lady’s Hands are Cold,” my favorite story from Through the Woods: 

A young woman is awoken by a sad song, and goes looking for its source across the two-page spread. The song is, "I married my love in the springtime, but by summer he'd locked me away. He'd murdered me dead by the autumn, and by winter I was naught but decay. It's cold where I am and so lonely, but in loneliness I will remain, unloved, unavenged, and forgotten, until I am whole once again."

The song, in its bloody red ribbon, divides the page into panels while also guiding us through them. We get a sense of movement and time without relying as much on conventional borders. The page feels dynamic, alive—ironic, considering the singer’s current state. 

And there are other, smaller examples too:

A maid prepares a young woman for dinner with her husband and tries to convince her that the song she heard was "nothing but a dream."

See how the text bubble’s tail weaves between the comb’s teeth and breaks the borders of the panel? Or how the maid’s next words hover over the dining table, the darkness of “nothing” creeping into the candlelight? It feels like the maid’s words are echoing in the young woman’s head during dinner, and she does not believe them. 

Text isn’t a separate layer in these images. Instead, it intrudes into the illustration and its supposedly empty borders. The audience doesn’t get to enjoy the illusion of neat, ordered, separate elements. Instead, those elements break space and time in the story, including the space—the borders—that are meant to be reserved for the readers. We don’t get to draw back so easily. Without the usual divisions, we fall into the page. 

Since Through the Woods is a book, though, a definite object with definite edges, Carroll’s work can only bleed to the edges of the page. This isn’t the case with her online work. 

“When the Darkness Presses” starts off like a totally conventional webcomic. Well, you have to click a shadowy door to actually access it, but after that totally normal entrance, you’re greeted with a bubbly title font, a standard four-panel comic, and bright, animated ads. 

A screenshot of one of the early scenes from "When the Darkness Presses." Two bubbly young women discuss housesitting, and the comic panels are surrounded by brightly colored ads.
Wow what an absolutely normal and cheerful comic haha what fun

It’s disconcertingly familiar and even nostalgic (that is, if you’re like me and have used adblock religiously since the early 2010s). Pretty soon, though…well, you should read the comic before you move on. It’s worth it. 

Pretty soon, our protagonist describes a recurring nightmare, and the whole layout changes. The ads disappear, the four-panel structure dissolves, and the background darkens. We scroll down into parts of the comic that we can’t see. There are terrible things hiding off the edges of our screen.

A screenshot from a nightmare sequence in "When the Darkness Presses." A young woman awakens to someone trying to get through a door to her room.

Things go back to normal, but now that we know that the comic can change, we’re just waiting for it to happen again. And it does, of course, but Carroll doesn’t leave us there. The ads flicker as the protagonist becomes increasingly lethargic, and then they’re replaced entirely by the strange red pattern of the bedspread. 

And then…

Another nightmare sequence; the young woman opens the door.

Then the protagonist goes through the door, and we scroll horizontally. 

The young woman walks out into a beautiful and fantastical garden scene with lots of bright colors.

I’d never seen a comic do this before! The use of space was so novel and so fun, because of course when you’re on a screen, you’re not constrained by the borders you have with a book. You can go wherever you want on a screen. You can break your readers’ expectations at the same time you’re breaking the bounds of your fictional world by, say, leading your protagonist into a super sketchy garden. 

And in case you still haven’t read “When the Darkness Presses” (why haven’t you?) I’ll leave it at that. 

Carroll uses this technique elsewhere as well—I highly recommend “Margot’s Room” for another great read. 

A screenshot of the opening screen from "Margot's Room:" It's a dark, simple bedroom where a blood struggle has taken place.
Seriously, go read “Margot’s Room,” I could spend another 1000 words just talking about this comic.

This approach is so special and important because we don’t have to treat our digital comics like books or like blog posts. Next page arrows don’t have to look like arrows, and links don’t have to look like links. Stories can literally be “out of the box” made by the screen. And Carroll is doing all of this.

While I was writing this piece, I learned that Carroll published a new book, When I Arrived at the Castle, with Koyama Press in 2019. (2019! I think I need to start paying more attention to the authors I enjoy and less attention to rare Vine compilations on YouTube—but maybe we live in a world where both are possible). 

The book is definitely going on my wishlist. How about yours?

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