Alistair Toth is a stiff. The high school-aged horror devotee doesn't just shun alcohol and pot; he also insists that he possesses no romantic or sexual urges—at least until he develops a crush on the new girl in his school. But after a bout of self-hypnosis, Alistair begins noticing strange changes in his body, ones that could interfere with his romantic desires—and his entire life.
Jason Thompson's The Stiff is a webcomic that has been weighing on my brain for more than ten years. I first stumbled across it in college, when it was hosted on the Girlamatic website, and I quickly fell for its vibrants characters and creepy tone.
It helps that I've known people like Alistair Toth, the sorts of people who, when asked their views on abortion, say that they're "pro-death" or claims that a vow of chastity is the only way to respect women. There's a sense that he's not truly asexual and will one day outgrow his pretentious attitudes, but that he has invested so much in the person he holds himself out to be that it's difficult for him to be truly honest with himself and his friends.
Outwardly, Alistair seems focused on his career as a writer. He's completely obsessed with the horror genre, especially zombie movies. His love of writing helped him forge his most significant, but difficult relationship with Jamie Etchison, a girl who spent her sophomore and junior years learning about her sexuality even as Alistair has suppressed his. But when Alice Hoffman transfers to their high school during senior year, Alistair finds himself, for the first time, interested in romantically pursuing a girl, through fantasies of being the white knight who comes to her rescue or the last two survivors of a zombie outbreak.
"I like building up tension," Alistair says of his own writing, and it's clear that Thompson feels the same way. What could be a high school romantic comedy takes on an unsettling tone through Thompson's art, where background characters look like zombies, dogs have empty eyes, and even Alistair's parents look like they belong in a gothic mansion. It also helps that some of the characters and places have horror names; Alistair attends Larkspur High and is friends with a Shirley Jackson, while Jamie once attended Monkshood with a Daria Argento. Alistair Toth may love horror, but he doesn't realize that he's living smack-dab in the middle of a horror world.
So it's probably ill-advised when, one night, after suffering from a nasty flu and contemplating the nature of death, Alistair decides to hypnotize himself. He's certain that his will is superhuman, but he can't be prepared for the consequences of his experiment. Nor does he understand his sudden attraction to Alice Hoffman, which is far stranger than he realizes. Thompson's characters are perfectly real, enduring an adolescence that is no more or less exciting than the real thing, filled with gossip and stumbles and half-baked ideas about the way the world works, but there is something unnatural creeping into their world, and Thompson is slow to pull back the curtain, preferring to focus on characters and atmosphere.
The Stiff disappeared from the Internet before it completed its run, and its juicy mysteries were all left hanging. So I was excited when Thompson decided to rerelease the original pages online and is planning on finally finishing the story. That means that the pages he has released so far a bit rougher around the edges than Thompson's more recent work (although still wonderfully detailed), but we'll also eventually get to see Alistair and his world rendered by Thompson's more practiced hand.