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Review: ‘Apocalypse Taco’

Apocalypse Taco
Writer/artist: Nathan Hale
Abrams; $14.99

Cartoonist Nathan Hale’s latest original work is an unusual hybrid of a light-hearted, kid-friendly adventure story with honest-to-goodness horror—horror that comes in an entire rainbow of disturbing sub-genre flavors.

There’s the old Frankenstein-style man-playing-God mad-scientist kind of science-fiction horror; there’s the pervading aura of unnerving creepiness style of horror, as the main characters find their city suddenly empty, their loved ones replaced, or see their own doppelgangers in the distance; there’s body horror, as characters find themselves suddenly and unexpectedly physically altered beyond their own comprehension; there’s apocalyptic horror, as the world seems on the brink of ending, and the best the characters can hope to do is survive it; and there’s even a bit of existential dread in here.

It’s genuinely scary stuff, all bound together by a sense of wrongness, but, in a testament to Hale’s skills as a storyteller, his Apocalypse Taco is never suffocating or overwhelming. As terrifying as some of the imagery might be—for what it suggests as much as what Hale draws on his pages—the young protagonists never completely lose their sense of humor (nor does the comic). And while for much of its length, Apocalyse Taco reads like a bad dream—I don’t think “nightmare” is too strong a word, really—it opens before the nightmare starts and continues a few pages past the conclusion of the dream. In other words, Hale allows the reader to “wake up” from the dream, to spend a few minutes in the sunlight after leaving his spook house of his story.

Part of the reason that story is so devastatingly effective is that it comes as such a surprise. The early chapters of the book, like the very title, suggest that this won’t be a mind-bendingly scary comic, and yet…

The night before the set for a high school production of Brigadoon absolutely, positively needs to be finished in time for dress rehearsals, the stage crew plans to work overnight in one last, frantic push to get it done. The kid crew all have permission slips to stay up and at the school all night—so that at the very foundation of the story, the natural order of things is being violated, albeit mildly—and among those children are Axl and Ivan, the middle-school twin sons of the faculty member in charge of watching over all these kids.

At 1:30 in the morning the boys are sent with their mom’s credit card and 16-year-old driver Sid on a fast-food run. They go through the drive-through at the local Taco Bear franchise, and then things start to go…weird.

Their order grows tentacles and teeth and attacks them. The sky looks strange. Cars sink through the pavement, as if they were being eaten by the ground itself. Returning to the school, Axl finds that his metal locker is now soft, and when he tries to open it, it melts into goo. Their mom and all of the other students have been replaced by strange simulacra made of a strange material.

When they flee, things only get worse. They are pursued by monstrous cars with legs instead of wheels, while the roads and buildings all warp like melting plastic. And then they find themselves caught between a huge mass of human arms that speaks English (and will eventually explain what’s going on) and an even larger creature seemingly composed entirely of human teeth.

So yeah, this is anything but your typical kids vs. the apocalypse sort of story.

It’s not until about halfway through that what is going on begins to be explained, and, remarkably enough, it does all make sense. It’s an incredibly inventive, science-based scenario, a grad student’s experiment that becomes way too successful for his own good, and the good of the whole world. All of the disparate freaky phenomena our protagonists have spent the night reacting to are all elements of this single cause. Once that cause has been revealed—and I don’t want to spoil it anymore than any review of the book can’t help but to spoil it—all of those events fit together so neatly that, upon a second reading, the storyline is pretty completely transformed, losing its aura of mystery and paranoia.

That also allows for a happy ending of sorts—but, true to the horror genre, there’s a bit of a last-moment sting at the end—as once the characters get a sense of what’s going on and the rules governing it, they can start to fight back against it.

As in his 2017 One Trick Pony, Hale’s relentlessly inventive design work makes that which is supposed to be alien seem exactly that, and it gives a uniqueness to his his comic. It’s one thing to hear me describe the events in passing here, it’s quite another to see how Hale renders the monster fast food and cars or false people and things like, say, a cloud of human arms of various lengths fist-fighting a hostile world.

There are certainly similar stories in various media, in terms of kids facing strange, scary circumstances over the course of a particularly crazy night, but I’ve never seen anything in any media quite like this, and I doubt anyone else has either.

Young readers, particularly those who are easily freaked out, may want to proceed with caution. More adventurous readers can plunge right in, with one caveat: There’s a pretty good chance their minds might get blown in the process.

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J. Caleb Mozzocco About J. Caleb Mozzocco

J. Caleb Mozzocco is a way-too-busy freelance writer who has written about comics for online and print venues for a rather long time now. He currently contributes to Comic Book Resources' Robot 6 blog and ComicsAlliance, and maintains his own daily-ish blog at EveryDayIsLikeWednesday.blogspot.com. He lives in northeast Ohio, where he works as a circulation clerk at a public library by day.

Comments

  1. What age range would you say? I ask because I buy the graphic novels for “children” at my library, and that’s generally under middle school age, with those for middle school and up in the Teen Space. We have his Nathan Hale books in Children’s, but would this be too scary for most 5th and 6th graders? Or is that exactly the target group?

    Thanks!

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