The world is so much larger when we’re kids. It’s grander and more wonderful, but when we experience a trauma, it’s darker. In The Replacer, published by Aftershock Comics, we follow Marcus as he deals with trauma, and as that trauma distorts his world. Written by Zac Thompson, with art by Arjuna Susini, with colors by Dee Cunniffe, and letters from Marshall Dillon, The Replacer is a graphic novella inspired by Thompson’s own life.
Set in the 1990s, the Beharrell family is normal. Marcus fakes sick to stay home from church with his dad and watch scary movies. Bonding over Godzilla and horror, Marcus and his dad are as close as father and son can be. But while they are home from church, his father suffers a debilitating stroke. Having fallen asleep on the couch, Marcus finds his father in the middle of it, partially paralyzed, struggling, scared. The young boy is the only one home and in a situation where he has to save him.
After making it through the night and finally getting help, Marcus is unable to understand that despite being paralyzed and needing to relearn speech that his father is the same man. He creates a monster, the replacer name Jinkiniki, as the evil force behind his father’s disability instead of grasping that the recovery from stroke is different for every person and that it’s okay that his dad isn’t capable of the same things.
Marcus is focused on exorcising the demon in his father, convinced that he can make him better. He just can’t accept that the dad he knew is different, and instead of adapting, he forces his imagination on his father, desperately trying to control the situation. In his nine-year-old mind, there has to be another reason. He watches every horror movie he can, The Exorcist, The Shining, everything to try to bring his dad back. But his dad was always there, he just wouldn’t expect it.
It’s incredibly easy to read this as an adult and look down on Marcus, to scold him for his refusal to accept that his parent is now disabled. It’s also easy to do so when you haven’t had a traumatic event like watching a parent or loved one suffer something as debilitating and dangerous as a stroke. It’s easy to see him as a silly child enacting an ableist stance when you haven’t had to live with the guilt of questioning yourself: What if I had called 9-1-1 sooner? What if we had just gone with mom?
Marcus is a child processing guilt, fear, and change and the visuals created by Susini and Cunniffe astutely capture both the mundanity of family life and the dread and horror of being witness to a traumatic event. Through the monster, the Replacer, you get to understand how the demon of that night follows Marcus around, latching on to everyone around him as he desperately attempts to “save” his father. But instead of saving him, he begins to tear his family apart.
Thompson’s words hit me like a sledgehammer, over and over again. The dialogue is authentic, representative of a family struggling to be okay again after their patriarch suffers a severe medical trauma. From Marcus’ rationalization, to his mother’s reliance on the church, to his sister’s attempts to hold them all together, it hurts to read. Not because it’s bad, but because it’s real.
The Replacer hurts to read because by the middle I had tears in my eyes. My grandmother was the pillar of strength in my family. She guided our house with a simple look, she raised me while my parents worked multiple jobs, and she suffered many strokes. Eventually, my grandma who would color with me lost her ability to write entirely, she stopped communicating in English as much – which as a child forbidden to speak Spanish meant I could barely speak with her, she lost her leg, she needed assistance, and I was there.
There is something that happens to you as a child when you see someone who you believe is invincible fall. When someone you think they will always be there suffers something that points out their mortality. I had the “wela might die” talk at least 11 times by the time I was 15. I gave her care. I loved her. But it was hard to adapt to, and it was even harder for my five-year-old brother who didn’t know who she was after the stroke. Eventually, my grandmother regained a semblance of who I first remembered but as Thompson points out in The Replacer, it feels like you lose the memories. The memories of tea parties and cooking are replaced.
Reading The Replacer, I was reminded that I don’t have tangible memories of my grandmother before all the illnesses. I have feelings, stories, but the kind of memories that you can live in, those are gone. And that’s okay. Because as I grew up, we made new memories. I helped her in the kitchen more, I was her hands when she couldn’t cook anymore. I was her eyes when she was looking in the garden for slugs. She was grandma. But it took time to get there. For a child, the replacement is all they feel, the helplessness and fear for their beacon of hope.
The Replacer is such a hard book to read. You get angry at Marcus. But as the story progresses, you understand him. You see yourself in him. You’ve been there. To put this kind of story on the page must have been an emotional labor for Thompson and I thank him for sharing that with the world. We know what Marcus is doing is wrong, every character around him tells him so, tells us so.
For readers who have experienced this kind of trauma, this is a must-read. In some ways, it gives those of us who have lived through similar situations a vocabulary to discuss it. The Replacer is a read I highly recommend. It is deep, dark, and gut-wrenching. This graphic novella uses horror as it’s intended to be used. It tells us something about ourselves, our concerns, our fears, and ultimately how all of those are not always what they seem.
Kate is co-founder, EIC, and CCO of BWT. She’s also a Certified Rotten Tomatoes Critic, host, and creator of our flagship podcast, But Why Tho? and Did You Have To?. She also manages all PR relationships for comics, manga, film, TV, and anime. She has an MA in Cultural Anthropology and Religious Studies focusing on how pop culture impacts society.