Imaginary Fiends is DC Comics’ best new horror comic in a long line of horror comics that came before.
In a nutshell, the comic has a simple hook: What if imaginary friends were real? That’s not necessarily a horror story — at least, not until writer Tim Seeley and artist Stephan Molinar also asked: What are imaginary friends?
The answer, in Imaginary Fiends, is “extra-dimensional parasites that feed on human attention.” If an Interdimensional Mental Parasite, or IMP, is successful enough, it will eventually become addicted to human fear. And that hunger will eventually make it very powerful, and very dangerous. The IMP will seek to trap its host in an existence of fear, by force, if necessary.
That’s where the FBI’s secret IMP division comes in.
The teeth on the monster above notwithstanding, we’re still at a point in this explanation where we can talk about it with a grin. Maybe Imaginary Fiends is a self-aware supernatural action procedural in the tradition of the Hellboy films. And Seeley and Molinar certainly could have taken it in that direction.
Instead, they decided to go with the darkest interpretation they could muster. Our protagonist is Melba Li, convicted of first-degree attempted murder for stabbing her best friend when she was 12. But it was her own IMP, an unsettlingly bladed arachnoid monster called Polly Peachpit, who manipulated and coerced Melba into the act.
On Melba’s 18th birthday, Special Agent Virgil Crockett makes Melba an offer: Come work for the IMP division as an IMP field consultant. As he puts it, “The only thing that can punch an IMP is another IMP.” Work for the FBI, and she can live free under a new identity instead of transferring to an adult prison. But doing so would mean summoning and partnering with the entity that ruined her life. Yes, Polly Peachpit is still around, abusing and isolating Melba, promising to murder any person whom Melba might come to love more than Polly Peachpit.
Melba chooses conditional freedom and hunting IMPs.
As you may already have noticed, Molinar’s monster design for the series is top-notch (there’s a particularly great reveal at the end of issue #2 that I won’t spoil here), and Seeley crafts a hidden supernatural world that plausibly slots into our own reality in the way that the best ghost stories do. Why are most imaginary friends a phase? Why don’t more people know about the strong ones? Why does the FBI keep their existence a secret?
Seeley and Molinar answer all of those questions in the first issue, so that they can get to the meat of the series: pulling horror from the trauma of the abused and the instability of the abuser, who’s addicted to domination and attention. An equally compelling thread in the first two issues is the social tension in the transition from tween to teen.
The moment when their child host begins to fear social mishaps — loneliness, being ostracized or abandonment — more than the monster under the bed is the moment when IMPs are at their most vulnerable. So it’s also the moment when they’re at their most dangerous.
Imaginary Fiends feels like DC’s Vertigo imprint in its classic days, the sort of concept that would have fit seamlessly into the world of Hellblazer, The Books of Magic or The Sandman. If you’re looking for a dark story to pull you through the dark of the year, give it a look.