Recommended Reading: Harrow County Vol. 1: Countless Haints
I spent much of my weekend riding through the hills and mountains of West Virginia and southwest Virginia. I watched one evening as a storm crashed over a mountain, clutching at the valley like a great black hand. On a morning, driving back north, the fog and clouds became indistinguishable – twisting around the highway and switchbacks, rising from the trees like smoke from invisible fires, obscuring the deer lingering on the edge of the pavement only well enough to see, flitting, a bright flash disappearing into the deep, unknown woods.
In retrospect, it was fitting that I had read, and had been thinking about, Harrow County for this column right before descending into the south myself. Harrow County is scripted by Cullen Bunn. The art and lettering are by Tyler Crook. It is published by Dark Horse. You should be reading it. It is still a pretty young series, only the first two volumes are out in trade, with the third arriving next month. You’ve plenty of time to catch up.
The first arc centers on a young girl named Emmy who lives in southern, rural Harrow County with her father. A prologue offers us an immediate look at the darker side of life there. At some point, the residents had turned on a local witch – hanging and burning her. But not before she could offer one last warning: she’ll be back. After an absolutely beautiful two page spread of a gnarled tree in the night, a quiet farmhouse in the background, the book’s title vaporous in the night sky (more on the art in a moment), we are introduced to Emmy. She’s having trouble sleeping. Nightmares in which the tree far outside her window comes alive in flames, opens wide its toothed mouth, and screams “lies.”
Emmy’s 18th birthday is coming, but strange things have been happening. The dreams, for one. A dying calf brought back to life. A complete human skin stretched across the bramble in the woods, moaning and groaning for Emmy to reach out to it. It’s clear from the outset that Emmy and the witch have some kind of connection and as the townspeople become worried, Emmy takes for the woods.
The book examines the burden of inheritance. That is, that where we come from can sometimes determine who we are. Or can it? As Emmy puts the pieces together, she openly wonders what it all means, and whether or not she can be the one who determines her own fate. And this is just the starting place for the series, which also takes a look at the ghouls and haints and townspeople of Harrow County and asks what it means to be a family, a community.
Countless Haints collects the first four single issues of the comic and can feel maddeningly episodic at times. However, the arc mostly holds, even if it is rushed slightly by the end. One of the great things about this comic is how its world offers the capacity for infinite expansion. While there are merits to bringing us into this world with a compact identity drama, what excites me about this comic, and what causes me to recommend it, is the possibility and promise it offers.
The world and characters of Harrow County are rich. And in this first volume, much of what makes them so rich, what makes me want more, are Tyler Crook’s illustrations. The book is stunningly beautiful. Don’t believe me? Take a look:
Crook’s art is that rare, perfect thing in comics: a choice that is truly bold and daring. There is a great deal of talk these days about doing new and daring things, but Crook doesn’t need to talk, because he’s doing them. As he points out in a brief interview collected in the back of the volume, illustrating with watercolors means no do-overs. What is put on the page stays on the page. As a result, the world feels organic – texture is huge here, the roughness of tree bark, the softness of hay, the slickness of blood-drenched skin. The colors pop when they need to (autumn has rarely been rendered so beautifully in a comic) and the blacks are inky and deep and mix with murky greys and blues to give nighttime its particular mix of darkness and light.
This series is absolutely worth catching up on, particularly if you like the unusual, the peculiar, the beautiful, and the profane.