Daisy was a retired puzzlemaker at the beginning of this comic series, The Red Mother (2020), by writer Jeremy Haun and artist Danny Luckert. The story opened with Daisy enjoying a well-earned happy relationship and the profits from a company she sold with her friend and business partner. She was adrift professionally, but otherwise entirely happy. Like all good horror though, this relative happiness was quickly and dramatically altered when an unseen attacker stole both her boyfriend, and her eye.
Physically scarred and unsure about the fate of her boyfriend, Daisy spent Volume 1 picking up the pieces of her life, while her progress was offset by visions of a shadowy monster. She gradually began to heal with the help of her therapist–until being ambushed by a crowd of probably-cultists and the slenderman-meets-eldritch horror at the end of issue #4.
Volume 2 (2020) combines issues #5-8 and begins with the now expected three panel introduction of the Red Mother herself. She has evolved from skeleton to mummy and now an elderly looking woman with a charming grin–and gaping eye socket. After this creepy prelude, we’re thrown right into the action to see Daisy finally vanquish the shadow beast!
Sort of. Not really.
Tension and horror escalate over the next four issues, becoming more tangible as new characters see the demon and symbolism pervades every page–including the recurring symbol of a red eye, seen exclusively on or near people Daisy should be able to trust.
The most notable shift in these middle chapters is Daisy’s journey to England, where she takes up a job with a famous designer. Excited to have a project again and eager to make new friends, the story transforms to a dramatic conflict between her own emotional progress and the creeping threat of the Red Mother and her minions.
While in terms of style and storytelling methodology these chapters are a continuation of the first volume, one approach stands out to me: misdirection.
Each issue blends–sometimes in the same page or panel–mundane interactions of daily life, Daisy’s work, conversations with her new friends (including a new romantic interest!), and explorations of the city. But nearly every step of the way, there are subtle clues that all is not right, leading up to the end of each chapter when something sinister occurs. From her co-workers commenting “Praise to the Red Mother, see her” after dropping her off from a fun outing, to the shadow beast waiting at the office while she shares an intimate moment, the story uses misdirection to drive the mystery. Similar (yet somehow creepier) to jump scares in horror films, these sudden reveals with no explanation derail Daisy’s mundane life, sometimes without her even knowing.
As I continued reading, I found myself looking for clues in the panels. The use of the color red, the statues and artifacts in the background of the old mansion-turned-workspace where she’s building a new puzzle with Leland, and the recurring image of the eye. In one panel an otherwise harmless statue of a woman holding a baby takes on a darker meaning, and in a cheerful walk with her new love interest a giant graffiti skull takes the foreground as the focal point while they chat. Each panel holds some sort of meaning or indication of what’s to come.
I confess: often when reading comics I will skim through, giving a glance to the art while focusing on the story. For comics like that, the art clarifies the story and brings it to life–but often it’s just that. The images illustrate what’s happening in the story and what the characters are speaking about. In The Red Mother, we get a mix of wordless storytelling–like when the Mother caresses her empty eye socket while smiling sweetly–or the unsettling overlay of mundane dialogue with illustrations that tell us what Daisy doesn’t know: her friends are dangerous and the monsters aren’t gone.
While the story is an immediate continuation of the first volume, the initial pages give us a false sense of triumph. She destroys the beast, sure. But we don’t know what it is, what it wants, and she moves on with her life. We’re no closer to the answer we most want. Who is the Red Mother? Is she a goddess? A hallucination? A metaphor? Certainly the latter, but her true nature remains unknown throughout the second volume.
The comic is disarming and ingenious in its blend of mundane and magical, hope and horror. It’s this parallel that holds our curiosity. Some people may get annoyed by the lack of answers and the constant back and forth between Daisy’s attempts to live a normal life and her experiences with an unknown terror. But in my opinion, that’s what makes the story most successful. Even when she’s not directly aware of the evil stalking her, we see it everywhere. In the Blind Stag bar she frequents, with the literal bloody-eyed stag head over the door, and words spoken behind her back, the ongoing use of the color red, and so forth.
What the dialogue doesn’t convey, the art fills in with clarity, so that we always understand what’s going on. A couple pages in the volume are composed of 9 evenly laid out panels–a number that pushes the bounds of what is usually readable on a comic page. The timeline is uncertain, we read each panel as its own moment in Daisy’s daily life, which could easily become confusing. But rather than confusion, we get quick and effective storytelling and a poignant panel to panel display of Daisy’s happiness and fear. We also see stark contrasts in color throughout–often blue and red–which likewise adds to the opposition of Daisy’s newfound hope and peace with her continued nightmare and anxiety.
Some comic writers give highly specific guidance for visually depicting action and environment, and others provide only a skeleton with simple notes, allowing the artist plenty of room to play. Whichever the case here, The Red Mother offers an example where the art perfectly reflects the writing and story; even when the dialogue has nothing to do with the visuals, there is a cohesive strategy that informs us about what we should be feeling and thinking at any given moment. Further, the inclusion of subtle symbolism encourages the reader to engage with the comic rather than just reading it. I found myself searching panels for hidden elements, trying to find the subtext and layers that might illuminate who the Red Mother is and what she wants with Daisy.
Fans of urban fantasy who don’t have much experience or interest in comics would do well to give The Red Mother a read. The first two volumes are clear in focus and beautiful in execution, easy to understand without being too simple, and with cinematic pacing that keeps you on your toes. It avoids cheesy tropes and boring over-explanation and incorporates references to occultism, the relationship between magic and science, and other elements that will be sure to entice any urban horror fantasy lover’s interest.
The comics deserve credit for their intentionality, cohesive story telling, and self-aware depiction of trauma and psychological issues–without the fluff or melodrama that stories in this genre sometimes fall into. The Red Mother promises more mystery and more thrills in the next volume, and I’m excited to see not only more reveals surrounding the nature of Mother, but also the continued progress Daisy makes as she gains personal strengths and finds her place in the world.This is a story of survival and adversity, of overcoming traumatic experiences and grief. A masterpiece of art and storytelling, The Red Mother is a must-read for people who love slow-burn horror with plenty of atmospheric mystery. If you’re okay being kept up at night, searching the corners of your room for shadow beasts, this story is for you.