Capitalizing on a wide array of prior successes, author Rio Youers and artist Alison Sampson have adapted Stephen and Owen King’s 700-page novel Sleeping Beauties into a ten-issue comic series released by IDW Publishing. Alison Sampson has created artwork for comic projects including Hit Girl, Winnebago Graveyard, and Jessica Jones, while Rio Youers has authored a handful of well-received thriller/horror novels, including The Forgotten Girl and Halcyon, as well as a trove of novellas and short stories. In Sleeping Beauties, Youers and Sampson combine strengths to deliver a surreal version of the father/son King duo’s apocalyptic tale about a town in West Virginia tearing itself apart as a mysterious sleeping sickness, dubbed Aurora, targets the world’s female population. While the series debuted in June 2020, IDW released a hardcover graphic novel in April of this year that collects issues one through five, allowing readers to experience the first half of the series in one volume.
The comic introduces us to the Appalachian community of Dooling, West Virginia, by way of a beautiful stranger called Eve Black who may prove to be the key to the entire Aurora mystery. After killing a pair of meth cooks in the woods, Eve is detained in the Dooling Correctional Institute for Women as the Aurora plague has already begun to sweep across the world. The prison serves as a kind of hub for the story and we get to know the prison’s chief psychiatrist, Dr. Clint Norcross, along with his wife, Lila, who is the local Sheriff, as well as the warden, a selection of inmates, and a sexually abusive guard. The swiftness of the Aurora pandemic throws the world into the grips of chaos, and we discover the sleeping sickness is even more grotesque than we first knew as those afflicted can become uncontrollably violent if their fibrous sleeping cocoon is disturbed or removed. As days slip away with no cure, increasing panic, dwindling hopes, and new rumors of a mystery woman at the prison who can sleep without getting sick, the men of Dooling desperately consolidate power and begin to plan an attack against the prison to find Eve in hopes of ending the affliction.
Youers has done a remarkable job at juggling so many different characters, locations, and themes while still propelling the plot forward in a way that reveals and conceals as needed. The story works through social constructs of gender and identity as people grapple with losing the females in their lives, as well as the kind of impact that fear and panic can have amid a pandemic with few available answers. We get a taste of the balancing act between vetted national media and conspiracy-laden social media, and how the fears of a nation can unleash more bloodshed and killing than the biological mortality of disease on its own. Throughout such an intricate plot, Youers still manages to deliver effective deep-dives into the characters, revealing past flaws and glimpses of redeeming qualities even where villains are concerned (and we’d rather simply detest them than understand what makes them tick).
Sampson has crafted a vision of this story that seems to float like one of Eve Black’s blue moths over the town of Dooling and its characters. We see the beauties of the natural world— its plants and animals— in contrast to the often chaotic and cluttered world in which our characters dwell. The artwork, assisted by colorist Triona Tree Farrell and with letters by Christa Miesner and Valerie Lopez, doubles down on the theme that humanity is the real disease, and illuminates the darkness just below the surface of the lives of the people of Dooling and around the world in contrast to the inherent power and immutable beauty of the kill or be killed natural order. Recurring symbols of nature— such as webs, moths, a tiger, a snake, a hawk, a fox, a peacock, a rat— act as archetypes of simplicity and conscious action when we read how the human characters seem to flail through the Aurora pandemic, constantly unsure of themselves and acting out of unconscious fears. Throughout the five-issue volume, Sampson spreads Eve Black’s maniacal, grinning, murderous facial expression around to several characters, emphasizing that humans can easily be pushed to the point of “impetuous, angry, thoughtless” violent action and that the choice to do less harm is always present.
The hardcover graphic novel edition of Sleeping Beauties, Vol. One lays out the first half of an eerie story that is both timely and familiar, yet frightening and surprising. The creators acknowledged the comic reads differently than expected having been developed pre-Covid yet released during the current global pandemic, and that fact is certain to add untold layers of emotional reactions for each reader. With a plot that is the inverse of Y: The Last Man and a compelling and conflicted cast of characters, Sleeping Beauties, Vol. One delivers a blend between mystery, thriller, and horror that would appeal to readers interested in human nature.