A Sickness in the Family
- Words: Denise Mina
- Art: Antonio Fuso
- Publisher: DC Comics/Vertigo
- Price: $19.99
- Release Date: Nov 26, 2010
Posted by Andy Oliver on Jan 10, 2011
An entry in the Vertigo Crime imprint, A Sickness in the Family traces the final weeks of the rapidly collapsing Usher family unit. Neglectful, workaholic father Ted and unfaithful wife Biddy have been trapped in a deteriorating marriage for years while natural children William and Amy epitomise the wastefulness and self-obsession of a comfortable middle class upbringing. Grandmother Martha is largely ignored by everyone while adopted son Sam, the only Usher family member with a hint of decency, is treated like an outcast in his own home.
When a murder in the apartment below them gives the Ushers an opportunity for upwards social mobility, a chain of events is set in motion that, rather than bringing the family together, drives them further apart. As someone, or something, starts picking off the Ushers one by one, Sam discovers that their home was built on the execution site of a 16th century witch. Are sinister supernatural forces at work or are the clan the victims of an evil more grounded in the harsh realities of the 21st century?
From the book’s opening festive scenes, displaying the sort of macabre Christmas atmosphere that Dickens or M.R. James would have been proud of, it is more than apparent that, in the Ushers, Denise Mina has created the sort of grimly dysfunctional family unit that cannot fail to entrance and captivate our attention as they vindictively bicker over the Usher legacy. Granted, they entice the readership’s focus in that morbid, voyeuristic way that we should be slightly ashamed of, but, by the time you realise that, you are too busy enjoying the ugly spectacle of their infighting to care. Resembling a kind of ultra twisted version of the classic Dudley D. Watkins’ creation, Scottish clan The Broons, the family’s outward pretensions of middle class respectability hide a layered past of intricate secrets and lies that competently drive the murder mystery forward and make the audience shudder in anticipation at, what we know from the outset, will be an inevitable, gloomy conclusion.
Mina is ably partnered by artist Antonio Fuso whose European visual sensibilities are an apt fit for this stark tale. Fuso makes an intriguing use of grey shading throughout, which adds to the suitably shadowy feel to his layouts and heightens the doom laden atmosphere that permeates the narrative. His deceptively simple linework is full of nuanced characterisation, and occasional jumps into disarming perspective or claustrophobic close-ups ramp up the tension of Mina’s script all the more effectively.
Where A Sickness in the Family perhaps does not hold up is in the twists and turns of its denouement. It is there that a major plot hole almost threatens the credibility of the whole piece. However, by this point the reader has become so immersed in the ride that any unlikely clichés in the story actually add to the macabre fun rather than detract from it. It’s an EC-style ending where the implausible “sting in the tale” will probably come as little surprise to anyone well versed in the conceits of the genre, but it all adds deliciously to the graphic novel’s overall sick charm.
A Sickness in the Family is a crime thriller that unashamedly revels in its nastiness and in scratching the darkest underside of twisted familial relationships. This is a graphic novel that is sordid, grim and thoroughly disturbing… and all the more eminently absorbing for it.
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