By Briah Skelly
Fear is an integral part of the human condition. It plays many important roles in our lives, teaching us to be wary of things that can cause us harm, like venomous critters or extreme heights; enhancing our bodies’ processes to better respond to danger; and reflecting our values back to us by revealing what we most fear losing—be it health, loved ones, or life itself. Perhaps this is why some of our most enduring stories are horror stories.
Cold Spots, a new miniseries debuting this week from writer Cullen Bunn and artist Mark Torres, is steeped in some of those universal fears: the fear of loss, the unknown, suffering—and, most of all, death. The narrative follows private investigator Dan Kerr, who turned his back on his pregnant wife 10 years ago and never looked back. Now she and their daughter, Grace, have gone missing, and he’ll have to overcome terrors far worse than his own personal demons in order to find them again; a deep, unearthly cold has settled on a small island town with mysterious ties to Grace.
For Bunn, who’s made the grim and ghastly his bread and butter, fear is a complex, multifaceted thing. “There's fear... and I'm talking about the supernatural terror that permeates a book like Cold Spots... and then there's FEAR, a kind of bone-deep terror that I saw one side of as a kid, then another as an adult,” he explains. Cold Spots is a ghost story. But the ghosts within these pages won’t be rattling chains or crawling out of TV screens. They’re quiet, and much, much colder.
“Cold Spots springs from a time when I was reading a lot about ‘real world’ ghostly encounters,” says Bunn, whose extensive resumé boasts work from nearly every major comics publisher, including the trans-generational cult thriller Regression. “I read over and over again about the manifestation of dropping temperatures and cold spots when ghosts were near. The spirits in this story—at least at the beginning—are more brooding and lonely and quiet and—I suppose it’s the perfect word—chilling. I wanted the ghosts to seem more… alien than you might encounter in some horror stories.”
Looking at his other haunting works, particularly the Southern-fried witch folklore of Harrow County and the aforementioned Regression, Bunn clearly knows the power of rising tension and revulsion, of deep, primal fear. But what makes his work so compelling is that it comes from a very personal and intimate place; he draws from his own experiences and dread fascinations. That human connection plays a significant part in Cold Spots, giving flesh and blood and depth to its characters—particularly Kerr.
“Anyone who knows me at all knows that my dad meant a lot to me,” Bunn explains. “He was a great man. He wasn't perfect, though, and he really made some horrible mistakes. I was old enough to weather those mistakes, but I saw how they tore up my younger brother. Now, as a father myself, I live in terrible dread that I might one day make some god-awful misstep and hurt my family or my son. That's a big part of what fuels the character dynamics of this book.”
Bunn also has a knack for pairing the perfect artists with his stories. His creative partner in Cold Spots is graphic designer and illustrator Mark Torres, best known for his work at IDW on Zombies vs. Robots and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles tie-ins, as well as the sci-fi drama series The Shrinking Man. After an earlier venture that didn’t pan out, Bunn and Torres kept in touch and kept their eyes peeled for another opportunity to work together. When the seeds of what would eventually be Cold Spots took root in Cullen’s mind, he knew exactly where to turn for an artist. “Mark has a keen eye for brooding, somber, quiet horror, and that’s really where Cold Spots lives and breathes.”
Torres works his magic on paper and in pixels, striking a balance between deep, inky shadows and vividly moody colors. “Films, being a huge influence in my work, taught me to treat color as a supporting character,” he reflects. “I approach it as an entity that triggers emotions—not only on the characters and scenes in the book, but hopefully with the readers as well. It’s always a tricky situation, working horror in print. On one hand, filling pages and panels with shadows and splatters (almost) automatically brings about the dread effect. But too much or too out of control can be more distracting than effective. I approach inks, traditional or digital, with the same respect for color. I let the art breathe, or drown it, depending on what the story needs.”
The ghosts of Cold Spots strike a balance of their own: both familiar and new. Bunn’s initial script describes them as hazy apparitions with indistinct, shadowy faces and eyes made of “pinpoints of ghastly light.” Torres illuminates how he went about their design: “I approached them as sort of afterimages, remnants of previous lives... moving in between frames of a View-Master reel.” The artist may have had a children’s toy in mind when he created these spirits, but they call to mind frames and reels of a different kind as well; the ghosts’ eyes are piercingly bright with light, conjuring images of old-fashioned projector lamps shining through film perforations, and shadows cast on dusty screens.
A tinge of noir occupies this ghost story, too. With a gruff, withdrawn private detective for a protagonist, and a deeply flawed protagonist at that, the story has a solid anchor to the mundane. Within the contrast between natural and supernatural lies uncertainty, which ferments a particular kind of slow, dull fear. “It’s something of a grim detective story,” says Bunn, “and Mark captures that tone perfectly. Of course, when the time comes to cut loose into full-blown ghastly horror, he kills it there, too. He manages to shift gears with ease, and I think it makes for a thrilling, unsettling experience.”
Despite the specters and cosmic terrors, Cold Spots is an undeniably human story. It’s a story about choices, about what we as human beings are willing to sacrifice for the ones we love, especially when the consequences are unpredictable. “We all make terrible mistakes,” Bunn says. “We all do things we regret. And sometimes, that regret makes us bad people. The hope is that we can overcome that and move onto being someone better. Like him or not, Dan has a drive and conviction when faced with overwhelming horror that I’d hope I’d have even a fraction of when the chips are down.”