Arbalest is created by @Kai_the_Spiral
WARNING: SPOILERS! SPOILERS! OH HEAVEN’S SAKE, SPOILERS!
Arbalest is a strange comic, one I struggle to talk about. It’s not because it’s obscene or controversial. It doesn’t have to do with the fact the narrative is abstract, although it certainly is. It’s because piecing together the narrative is part of the fun, and I’m afraid this article will spoil it. Heck, I even think the comic’s “About” page gives away too much. So fair warning, if you want read with a fresh perspective, wit no one’s opinion influencing your own interpretation, go ahead and skip this review. If you really want some else’s perspective, then stick around and enjoy!
Arbalest is a horror/dark fantasy comic set in an unnamed village covered in snow. The main character Haelu emerges from the forest and rapidly ages from a child to an adult. She doesn’t remember much, only that she has a family which includes her father and brother named Bael. The villagers cloth her, give her shelter, and feed her slabs of raw meat she eats voraciously with razor-sharp teeth. But Haelu notices they’re all nervous near her. They’re afraid of her for some reason. As she explores the village and gathers clues, Haelu slowly realizes they have plans for her. She is to be part of a ritual, and it doesn’t seem like it will end well for her.
The first thing to catch my eye is the art. The opening pages show the setting which is a vast countryside covered in snow, the sky perpetually blue with the cold of winter. Such establishing shots are not uncommon, but the use of blue is engrossing. I like settings to have a certain mood to them to help set the tone of the entire story. With the heavy use of blue in a winter setting, you get the feeling of oppressive fear and sorrow. You feel just as on edge as the villagers. You feel Haelu’s soul-crushing despair at being unable to find a way out of her entrapment. It’s appropriate that the characters are blue-skinned (No, don’t you dare make that reference). They reflect the misery around them.
For interior scenes, there is a strong use of yellow for light. Candle lights are the only source here, so they’re color is soft, not very strong and blue still shows around in the corners of houses. There’s a calming tone to this yellow light, but feels like a thin blanket over the miserable cold. It’s not much of a shield, leading to a further sense that the niceties Haelu receives from the villagers is half-hearted. One hand’s giving her a bowl of soup, but the other is holding a knife.
Even more interesting than the visuals of the physical world are the dream sequences. It’s here when the artist gets more experimental. The panel layouts are more dynamic, visuals are much more detailed and in your face. They take on an eldritch tone, what with Haelu being visited upon by creatures that are gigantic and have an all-seeing, powerful presence. These sequences came as an eye-opening surprise since so much of the story is restrained visually. It never feels out of place though, more like the eruption of so much repressed tension. Did I mention that all of this is colored with watercolor? It’s pretty amazing!
The only complaint I have for the art are the character designs. Flaws like shakey anatomy or inconsistency to subject proportion in relation to their surroundings come up, but I can forgive those as long as they’re not too egregious (Looking at you, Kaare Andrews). The only thing that irked me is how much many of the characters. Haelu stands out given her black eyes, but the rest of the villagers could easily be mistaken for one another. They have similar clothes, hairstyle, and even facial features so that sometimes I was confused. The worst example are the two characters Brand and Seefa. I got the latter confused with the former in an earlier scene because they near identical. Maybe that’s the point and it’ll later be revealed they’re siblings. At least the artist mostly fixes this problem by Chapter 4.
Going on to the story, well as I said before it’s very vague to what exactly is going on. There are no exposition dumps to give you every single detail. You don’t even have the thing where characters use dialogue scenes to talk to each other in a way clearly meant to inform the reader. The dialogue spoken is between people who are fully aware of their world and don’t need to explain it to each other. Other scenes that give us clues are flashbacks, the aforementioned dream sequences, voices Haelu hears in her head, and, most prevalent, various symbolism found throughout. These symbols are repeated over and over again, yet I have a very hard time describing them. I know they have ties to magic and shaman cultures, don’t know which ones exactly though. I can tell however, that they are further hints to what’s going on, especially the ritual Haelu is part of. There’s so much that I’m not sure if I remember them all, nor am I comfortable attempting to try and explain what each symbol I do remember means. If you go on to read Arbalest, I’d recommend keeping notes on all the symbols.
I have been able to piece together a little bit about the story. As far as I can tell, the villagers believe in this myth that when their ancestors settled in the land they now occupy, an arrow caused the sun to close and sent them into eternal winter. From the darkness came some horrible thing with teeth, demanding a sacrifice be made. Haelu is referred to as a Night Twin, and she and her brother Bael are that sacrifice. How the characters feel about this varies. Haelu is afraid of and wants to find a way out of the ritual. However, she also has to confront the demon side of herself, a literal beast form that preys on any living thing in its path. Most of the villagers are behind the ritual, especially the fog-eyed priest who seems to now rule the village with an iron fist because he’s perceived as the person with the most authority on the subject. There’s those who disapprove but find the ritual inevitable if not necessary. First one is Brand whose job seems to be to keep track of Haelu; one scene suggests she’s physically attracted to him. Then there’s Gar who has pitied Haelu ever since he once, as a boy, tried to play with her, only for his mother to drag him away and declare Haelu “not a child”. Finally, there is Seefa, who despite earning money for her family to live is verbally and physically abused by her mother for not bearing a child to continue their legacy. Seefa is the only one to publicly express her disdain for the ritual, referring to it as a butchering.
There are two other characters whose presence is constantly shrouded in mystery. Haelu has a father and a brother named Bael. Haelu’s father we never see but she constantly hears his voice, giving her very cryptic messages. Bael is, so far, only showed once during a dream in the beastly form that seems to mark Haelu’s family, one that terrifies her and at first refuses to recognize as her brother. Haelu, her family, and their beastly forms adds a layer of eldritch horror to Arbalest, like there is some greater, terrifying cosmic force behind the seemingly mundane village and its petty drama
It’s hard for me to go in depth on how I feel about this drama because the comic is so cryptic in its approach to storytelling, I can’t be sure on my understanding of each character’s feelings. I can be in the dark to what exactly is going on as long as I understand characters’ personalities and view of the situation. All the characters in Arbalest are so restrained in their reactions to the events transpiring that my readings of them are mere impressions, ones that I don’t think give me enough insight. This is not me complaining about the artist’s approach. It’s just very challenging, which is fine. As I said before I’m enjoying the fact Arbalest challenges me to put the pieces together. Heck, I’ll probably reread the comic from beginning to the current chapter. This might not be for readers who want instant understanding of the world and characters, but for the patient it’s really engaging.
I will say that I enjoy how both the art and story of Arbalest play around the central theme of oppression. The oppression is not one of race or gender, but of societal expectations. Haelu, Brand, Gar, and Seefi are all meant to serve the village in specific ways. Culture, religion, and family are all active forces of oppression. They are repeated time and time again, demanding each individual play their part in fulfilling expectations, or else grave consequences are met. It’s just like the ritual itself. Each character struggles with how they deal with this oppression, learning to live with it while also hoping for a way out. Now that I think about it, their struggles do emotional engage me. I think that even more than my desire for answers is what keeps me coming back.
Arbalest is a challenging read that awards patience and intuitive reading. It’s not for those seeking instant gratification, but if you enjoy parsing information from somber, surreal art, cryptic and symbolic storytelling, and characters constantly struggling with oppression, you’ll want to check this one out. With all the amazing indie horror/dark fantasy titles I find myself reading right now, this one has me thinking hard the most, which is an achievement in of itself.
Link to webcomic: http://arbalest.spiderforest.com/
Link to artist’s twitter: https://twitter.com/Kai_the_Spiral