Though more novel than comic, Chris Wooding’s “Part Novel/Part Comic” Malice (Scholastic Press) rests on an inventive central plot gimmick. The first book in a YA fantasy trilogy about a nefarious comic book that’s used to lure young readers into a deadly alternate universe, Malice blends elements of King and Straub’s Talisman with Candyman to tell the tale of two middle-schoolers who get trapped in this threatening new world. The two kids, Seth and Kady, are driven to investigate after their friend Luke disappears from his home and they see an illustrated version of their buddy in an ish of the independently produced comic Malice.
Per Ring-y urban legend, Malice’s readers are granted the ability to enter the world of the comic book by gathering a bunch of ritual ingredients, burning it all and repeating the mantra, “Tall Jake, take me away.” The duo’s inquiry brings ‘em to a sinister London comic shop called Black Dice and run by a fat figure named Scratch who’s like a nasty J.K. Rowling reimagining of the Simpsons’ Comic Book Guy. Soon, Seth (the more impulsive member of the twosome) has followed the ritual and himself become stranded in Malice, where you can check out any time you want, but…
As Seth struggles to survive his new environs, Kady attempts to investigate the makers of the Malice comic book in our world. We’re given several glimpses of Tall Jake, the malicious figure responsible for taking kids into his world, and a witchy figure named Mrs. Benjamin, though we don’t yet meet Grendel, the artist responsible for drawing the comic book’s glimpses of life and death in Malice. As a comic book series, the fictional Malice seems singularly unsatisfying: we're told the comic has no overriding story, just a collection of disconnected vignettes depicting kids in peril. The book contains six such graphic sequences, illustrated by Dan Chernett (but credited to “Grendel,” of course, within the book itself), though they all connect to the book's main storyline. Five of these offer snippets of Seth’s adventures; the first, featuring the seeming demise of Seth and Kady’s friend, ends with Tall Jake presiding over the scene like the horror host in a pre-code comic.
Chernett’s art is perhaps a bit too cleanly lined to capture the greasy menace of a world where children’s lives can get sucked from their bodies to provide power for a clock tower — or menacing biomechanical creatures lurk in every shadow — but it tells its part of the story fairly efficiently, even if the transitions from text to comic and back again aren’t always so smoothly handled. Wooding’s story is a decidedly dark one, and Malice proves a grimy and claustrophobic labyrinth: suitable to a setting that’s restricted to black-and-white panels. Even the real world proves unfriendly to our kid protagonists: both Seth and Kady’s parents prove highly ineffectual, and the only positive figure of adult semi-authority that we see in the entire book is a mousy looking businessman who unexpectedly stands up for Kady. It’s a neat touch: to her friend, the man would have been a symbol of dull British adulthood, “the kind of guy that Seth was so afraid of turning into.” But, as Kady realizes gratefully, the guy proves a life saver.
Sometimes, Malice tells us, there’s even heroism among the Hollow Men.