Comic book writer/artist team James Tynion IV and Werther Dell’Edera hit it big in 2019 with their creator-owned indie horror title Something is Killing the Children. Initially released as a limited series, the story of monster hunter Erica Slaughter proved so popular Boom! Studios quickly promoted it to ongoing series status. Since then, Something is Killing the Children has also nabbed an Eisner nomination and a Netflix adaptation is in production. Given this run of success, it’s no surprise that Boom! Studios greenlit House of Slaughter – a spinoff series that recently wrapped its first arc, “The Butcher’s Mask”, now available softcover.
What is surprising is just how satisfying House of Slaughter is. As a rule, pop culture offshoots suffer in comparison to whatever spawned them, especially when the original creative team isn’t directly in charge. With House of Slaughter – Vol. 1: The Butcher’s Mask, Tynion and Dell’Edera prove that there are exceptions to that rule, working with writer Tate Brombal and artist Chris Shehan to tell a tale that works on its own merits, while also adding an entirely new dimension to Something is Killing the Children. The result is that rarest of things: a prequel that actually makes the original story better.
House of Slaughter – Vol. 1: The Butcher’s Mask tells the origin story of Aaron Slaughter, Erica’s handler and rival in Something is Killing the Children. Unlike the arrogant antagonist of that series, here Aaron is an awkward teenager at risk of flunking out of the monster hunting academy that lends the spinoff its name.
Aaron’s life is further complicated by his new roommate Jace Boucher, an enigmatic arrival from rival house Maison de Boucher. The two trainee monster hunters quickly bond over their shared childhood trauma, but as Aaron begins to fall for Jace, a revenge plot is set in motion that could spell disaster for those who call the House of Slaughter home.
This brief synopsis hardly does the House of Slaughter – Vol. 1: The Butcher’s Mask justice. Together, Tynion and Brombal have developed a gripping narrative that effortlessly shifts genres and even timelines without missing a beat. Somehow, House of Slaughter – Vol. 1: The Butcher’s Mask is at once a sensitively told story – a queer love story, at that – and one of the most effective horror comics on the racks right now, as well.
A lot of this is down to the spinoff’s fully realised lead characters. As scripted by Brombal, Aaron and Jase are by turns violent and vulnerable, yet this volatility makes sense within the context of their past hurts and present surroundings. Brombal has their voices down perfectly, too. Jase’s bravado and Aaron’s bouts of self-loathing will sound familiar to anyone who is (or once was) a teenager, regardless of whether they attended monster hunting school. The same goes for their classmates and teachers – no two characters in House of Slaughter – Vol. 1: The Butcher’s Mask sound the same, but all of them sound just right.
Then there’s the top-shelf worldbuilding, which expands the lore of Something is Killing the Children in interesting and often unexpected ways. The way that House of Slaughter – Vol. 1: The Butcher’s Mask links back to the original series is largely unobtrusive, and despite being a prequel, the story is for the most part accessible to newcomers. Even so, this may be one of the spinoff’s only real drawbacks: it derives at least part of its effectiveness from readers being familiar with Something is Killing the Children. Sure, you could almost certainly enjoy House of Slaughter – Vol. 1: The Butcher’s Mask having never read a single issue of the main series, but honestly? I wouldn’t recommend it.
Those franchise newbies who do decide to push ahead with House of Slaughter – Vol. 1: The Butcher’s Mask will probably do so at least partly because of Shehan’s artwork. Shehan brings his own distinctive style to the spinoff that nevertheless gels with the aesthetic established in Something is Killing the Children, and since he’s working from Dell’Edera’s designs, none of the prequel’s additions to the existing canon feel out of place. Returning colourist Miquel Muerto’s contribution shouldn’t be overlooked either, as his moody palette imbues this new story with the same atmosphere as its predecessor.
One area where Shehan’s take on this universe really does diverge from Dell’Edera’s is the page layouts. There’s a claustrophobic, trapped quality to the way that Shehan arranges the panels on each page that mirrors what life is like for Aaron and Jase. The sensation of reading each page is that every other moment the pair experiences is confined by thick and unbreakable borders – simply because from our perspective, they are. Because of this, the handful of times where our teenage leads break down these borders (quite literally, in one instance) there’s a sense of freedom that’s subtle, but also powerful.
There’s so much more I could say about what makes House of Slaughter – Vol. 1: The Butcher’s Mask great. I could mention the way it radically re-evaluates Something is Killing the Children’s core premise – that there will always be monsters and those who hunt them – without breaking anything along the way. Or I could rave about how great it is to see representation done well in comics, especially in the horror genre. But really, all you need to know about House of Slaughter – Vol. 1: The Butcher’s Mask is this: it kicks off a prequel spinoff series so good, it’s scary.