Monday, December 14, 2015

Harrow County is a frightening read

Harrow County is a frightening read
by rick olivares

“If it’s not too much to ask for… I wouldn’t mind having a normal life every now and then. Says the girl who is having a conversation with a dead boy’s skin.”

Writer Cullen Bunn sure knows how to grab your attention with ingenious writing. And Harrow County (Dark Horse Comics) is one hauntingly beautiful yet creepy read. 

Harrow County tells the story of Emmy, a girl who was born on the day the people of Harrow County hung, stabbed, shot, and burned the witch Hester Beck who vowed her vengeful return someday. The odd thing is Emmy, wasn’t born naturally but was unearthed from the very tree where Beck was killed. She is given to her foster father Isaac for care and close watching with the entire community on the edge should she manifest signs of witchcraft. Eventually, she does 18 years later after Emmy heals a sick calf. And that is when the trouble starts. 

The genius of Harrow County is the conflicted characters. Emmy claims not to be Hester Beck or evil. Twice thus far (in the eight issues published), she reiterates this. The first is in issue three where she warns, “I am not some monster. But I can be.”

And reading that and watching her vaporize some folks who attack her, you wonder, does she mean that or is she trying to convince herself of that? And that is the rub.

There’s her foster father Isaac who at first tries to murder her when he believes her to be the reincarnation of Beck, and there are the various haints (a Southern American term for ghouls) who populate basements, cupboards, and barns not to mention the forest. And perhaps pervertedly, these creatures are both frightening but also intriguing in a Pottersque way.

We are treated into the twisted mirror version of Emmy when her “sister” Kammi makes a shocking and surprise appearance in #5. You know the saying, “you are your own worst enemy?” Well, Kammi embraces the dark side and rallies to her cause the malevolent haints and spirits of Harrow County. I wish though that this story arc, essentially the second in the series, lasted several issues longer. Its climax, much like the Battle of Hogwarts except this takes place in the woods of Harrow County is all too brief. 

It’s a minor gripe that does not one bit make reading Harrow County any less enjoyable.

Bunn first came to my attention with Western horror series, The Sixth Gun, from Oni Press. I thought that the first 20 or so issues of that series (they are now just waiting for the last issue, #49 to come out) were nothing short of brilliant for its unique setting, its engaging writing, and interesting characters. That story was set in the post-US Civil War south where a dead Confederate General returns to life and seeks to gather six guns of wicked and terrible power. Except some of the guns have their own protectors who look to prevent the forces of evil from gathering these weapons of mass destruction to usher in the apocalypse. 

I backtracked and picked up some of Bunn’s earlier independent works including the critically acclaimed The Damned. With every series that Bunn wrote, he topped the previous effort. And that means Harrow County (already praised by many of the top writers in the comic book industry including Mike Mignola whose Hellboy is one of the all-time best horror comics, Jeff Lemire, Mark Millar, and Kurt Busiek to name a few) should more than make Trip Advisor’s top destinations for comic book reading.

What completes Harrow County as a masterpiece is artist Tyler Crook’s moody art and water colors that heighten the tension and the gloom of this county. I first saw his work in B.P.R.D. and the wonderful new take on vampire stories that is Bad Blood (written by Jonathan Maberry) and I thought that Crook has a gift for wonderful design that is at once, frightening. In my opinion, the folks who excel at that are few — Berni Wrightson, H.R. Giger, and Mike Mignola. Crook should be mentioned in any sentence with the four of them henceforth. I urge you to check out the time lapse video of Crook’s pencilling, inking, and painting a splash page of Harrow County #2 (on It’s a thing of beauty that ends up terrifying. 

And that speaks for what this darn good comic book stands for.

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