What’s eating Zoey Ngo?
It is 2:01 AM. At least that’s what the clock says.
In the middle of the pitch darkness, a wreath around the trash-strewn bedroom and apartment separating Zoey from the outside world, time seems utterly arbitrary. A man-made construct that may as well not even exist. Even the concept of days, which have long since faded into each other, is meaningless. She stares up at the ceiling with bloodshot eyes. And an almost indescribable but distinctive feeling comes, just like it had so many times before this: it’s as if the ceiling itself is descending, moving in to crush her. To suffocate her in black. The only thing she can do is lie awake…
If ever your days have overlapped, Here I Lie Awake will surely speak to you. Billed by its author, illustrator, and creator melaredblu (all lowercase) as a psychological horror comic, it centers around Zoey, a young woman who has returned home after graduating college. Possibly due to trauma that has yet to be revealed, Zoey’s life has hit a dead end, and she lives a miserable, barely functioning existence in a dark and cluttered apartment. She only leaves when she has to, and one of her only contacts is Nat, an expectant mother and Zoey’s confidante, whom she affectionally calls “Ant-Gnat.” The majority of Zoey’s days are spent in the darkness of her apartment, where she’s seemingly hiding from something… something that may very well be lurking in the dark with her.
Protagonist Zoey Ngo is a young woman whose normal life has been overtaken—and for all intents and purposes, destroyed—by a sense of despondency and foreboding.
Stylistically and story-wise, Here I Lie Awake is all about darkness, and one of the comic’s huge standouts is the way it conveys this darkness from a visual standpoint. The art is extremely, unnervingly scratchy as well as borderline expressionistic, yet awash with subtle textures, giving hidden depth to every page. The panel layouts are ever so slightly uneven and slanted, pulling the reader out of their comfort zone with the most subtle of motions. This is definitely a comic you will want to read slowly and carefully. melaredblu’s major go-to technique in this comic is an artistic effect known as chiaroscuro, which involves heavy contrast between light and dark (or in this case, black and white) to create an evocative, intense look. Just like the ceiling closing in on Zoey, the comic’s sheer amount of black feels suffocating and heavy; if you let your guard down even for a moment, it will surely pull you in. Occasionally floods of white will shine through the gloom to offer some much-appreciated solace, but it’s not much… and only rarely does some actual color appear; when it does, it’s washed out and muted, bereft of all vibrancy.
In what we see of Here I Lie Awake, it remains unclear whether Zoey’s torment is a result of her own emotions, or something more physical and tangible.
The dense layering that characterizes Here I Lie Awake‘s art style also flows through the story itself. In a style of storytelling common to psychological and speculative horror works, much of the comic’s backstory is left unsaid, left up to the reader’s imagination. For example, it is completely left up to the imagination where the source of Zoey’s existential dread lies: does it come from within, the result of clinical depression or a chemical imbalance? Or was it directly induced by something in the outside world, by some past traumatic event that now haunts her? The pill bottles seen around Zoey’s apartment prompt yet another round of questions: what exactly are they, and what are they supposed to treat? Are they prescribed, over-the-counter, or perhaps even an illegal substance? In these ways and more, Here I Lie Awake actively invites its readers to speculate about the specter looming over Zoey and the world around her, and it shapes up to be quite the entertaining experience.
Here I Lie Awake is characterized by an extremely sharp, sunken, almost expressionistic art style that heavily uses blackness and doesn’t shy away from distortion. Zoey’s face in this scene, for example, is almost reminiscent of Edvard Munch’s 1893 painting The Scream.
At 30 published pages as of the time of this writing, Here I Lie Awake is a promising, bite-sized chunk of unsettling, shadow-shrouded horror, easily digestible in 20 minutes. But just as it is with a fair number of comics, it will likely not be to absolutely everyone’s tastes. For instance, Here I Lie Awake (so far) completely and totally forsakes action, in favor of establishing a mood upon which it slowly builds. Even though this is much less a problem with the comic’s writing and much more a characteristic of the comic’s genre, to people who enjoy the tense, terrifying scenes in comics like Rulopotamo’s M9 Girls or Neil Kapit’s Wyrecats—both of which have been previously featured in this column—Here I Lie Awake‘s measured footsteps may translate to pointless plodding. Readers who strongly prefer happy stories (as if the rest of this column wasn’t evidence enough) are better off staying away; light and dark may freely interplay in Here I Lie Awake, but there is no joy to be found here. For fans of horror, psychological fiction, and slice-of-life stories, on the other hand, Here I Lie Awake is an easy recommendation; 30 pages it may be, but those 30 pages are easily enough to sell a full product.
In the meantime, no one knows what will become of Zoey… least of all Zoey herself. In the meantime, the only thing she can do… is lie awake.
Here I Lie Awake is a work that is intensely reliant on and driven by its own foreboding mood. How much of this mood did you set out to convey when making the comic, and what steps did you take to do that? Are there any times when you’ve found yourself having to “pull back” for fear of suffocating or overwhelming the reader?
- melaredblu: Since Here I Lie Awake is my first attempt at creating a horror comic, there are a lot of new things I’m trying in order to create the right mood. I take some cues from horror manga I’ve read, but most of it is me just playing it by ear and not being afraid to go outside my usual style, both when it comes to art and writing. The story and visuals are meant to have a dark, oppressive tone throughout, but I do make a concerted effort to contrast it with some lighter moments. A good horror story needs to elicit an emotional reaction from the audience. If it’s the same plodding darkness all the way through, readers are liable to get bored. I wouldn’t say I need to “pull back” so much as I’m just mindful of the momentum. I’m actually more concerned that when the time comes to do the pages that are really meant to freak people out, the build-up will be strong enough, but the delivery won’t. Like I said, this is my first attempt at a horror comic, so even though I know what I want to accomplish, there are a lot of unknowns for me! So far, though, I’ve been mostly happy with the direction this comic has been going.
So far the only two named characters are Zoey, the protagonist, and “Ant-Gnat.” Can you give us a rundown of the cast and characters? Any interesting figures to tease for future pages?
- melaredblu: Zoey and “Ant-Gnat” (or Nat) are meant to share a protagonist role in the story, so they are going to be the ones the audience spends the majority of the time with. The roles of the other characters mainly center around how Nat and Zoey react to them.
Nat is an expecting mother and a very kind person. She and Zoey have been close since they were children, but they’ve been out of touch in recent years. They have a lot of catching up to do and she doesn’t know the depths of the problems she’s walked into. Nat is the sort of person who wants to support and comfort everyone, but she herself can be very vulnerable and in need of somebody to support her. She’s very excited to have her first child, and she’s due in a few weeks.
Zoey is only a few years younger than Nat, a recent college grad who has returned home. She wasn’t always the person you see now. She’s been sleep-deprived for three months and it’s taking a toll on her physical and mental health. For reasons not yet revealed, Zoey hasn’t sought help for these problems and she’s only now turning to Nat, now that she’s at her wit’s end. She trusts that Nat would do anything to help her, but feels guilty asking for that help.
Kurt is Nat’s husband. His role in the story is to be a source of support and reassurance for his wife. He’s a very important person to her, and Nat loves him very much. He’s just as excited to be a father as she is to be a mother. He’s not sure what to make of what’s been going on, but he hates how it affects Nat.
And then there’s Zoey’s father. So far, he’s only barely made an appearance in this comic, so I can’t reveal much yet. What we do know is their relationship is strained and that the two of them have butted heads in the past.
There is one other character who has a role in this story, but who will never make an actual appearance. All I can say is this person means a lot to both Zoey and her father, and probably could have done a lot to help Zoey through her problems… if that person were present.
The comic’s visual style is somewhat simplistic but has a LOT of depth and detail, such as the heavy use of light-and-dark contrast (chiaroscuro) and crosshatching. Can you describe your working process when it comes to pages, from initial concept to completed product?
- melaredblu: The process for making each page isn’t anything too special or unique. I work with a tablet and use Clip Studio to create the pages, starting with a sketch layer and putting down the panels and dialog. I go heavier on the blacks in this comic than I normally do to create a heavy atmosphere, but a lot of it really is just working at the page until it feels right.
Some parts of the visuals are experimental for me. I haven’t worked much with crosshatching before, and although I like the rough, scratchy look of it, I’m still trying to figure it out. I also put a lot of thought into how to color the comic. When I first started making pages, I considered doing just black and white, but it came out looking flat and empty. I decided that the comic needed just a little bit of color, so I went with a cool/warm grey color scheme and I think it’s the perfect choice for this story. Working within a limited palette helps keep the art from getting too busy, but also gives me more options for setting a mood.
Here I Lie Awake has 30 pages so far. If you had the opportunity to revisit previous pages, is there anything you would have added, subtracted, or just done differently? What if you were to adapt it into a movie or TV show, regardless of budget?
- melaredblu: I don’t think I’d change anything this early on! I know that the comic won’t be absolutely perfect, and I’m okay with that. Art is about expression, no perfection. This is just me wanting to tell a story and try some new things that I’ve not tried before. I’m very excited about this comic and I want people to get something out of it, but ultimately, I’m really just doing this because I can.
I imagine Here I Lie Awake would be interesting as a short film, maybe with some clever camerawork to create the illusion of the ceiling looming over Zoey and becoming heavier and more expansive as she stares at it. The sensation plaguing her is mostly physical in nature and is very difficult to represent visually, but some kind of cinematography or animation tricks would probably be useful in imitating what she feels. And of course, a good soundtrack would also make a big difference, but that’s something I plan to include in the comic anyway. I don’t claim to be much of a composer, but I have a few things in mind.
Finally, what advice would you give to a completely new reader of Here I Lie Awake, and what would you say to someone who said that the comic helped them with experiences in their own lives?
- melaredblu: Here I Lie Awake may be a horror comic, but most of the time, it’s more about terror than horror. Zoey isn’t speaking in metaphors when she says the ceiling feels heavy. That’s literally what it feels like to her. She’s terrified and she can’t understand why. That’s the core conflict of this story, and that’s all you need to know to get into it.
I’ve filled this comic with a lot of things that I’m personally afraid of, and my experience with this comic gives me the opportunity to ruminate on the things that scare me the most without having to confront them directly. That’s an intensely personal aspect to the process, and I don’t expect my readers to react to this comic the same way I will. I’d expect that, if the story speaks to you in some way, it’s probably very personal to you as well. I can’t promise this story will offer up any answers to real-life problems, but I do hope it helps you gain some insight into what troubles you most.
Read Here I Lie Awake here: