I consider myself a horror comics fan–longtime reader of Hellblazer, Hellboy, and lots of other scary comics that don’t have “Hell” in the title–but for some reason I kept putting off reading Cullen Bunn & Tyler Crook’s Dark Horse series Harrow County, which began in 2015. Now that I have finally dipped into it I find that the end of the series has been announced with Issue #32 in June 2018 (also announced as concluding in Vol. 8 of the collections, sticking to the four issues per volume convention). So I expect to read the entire series in just a few months time, and these are my impressions of the first half.
The first collection takes its subtitle from the original title of the book. Countless Haints refers to the many ghosts and monsters in the woods of Harrow County (‘haints” is a Southern variation of the word “haunts”). The series opens with the witch Hester Beck being put to death, in an exceptionally heartless and gruesome fashion. This event is truly the driver of the entire story, although that is not apparent at first.
The scene shifts to the present. Young Emmy feels the presence of haints, and both hates and fears the old oak tree outside her bedroom window. The first indication that she herself may be more than she appears comes when she seemingly brings a newborn calf back to life with a touch. And the first sign that things might not be normal in Harrow County comes when she follows a young boy into the woods and finds only his skin…whispering to her.
He is also the one who warns her that the townspeople intend to honor their pact to kill any young woman who turns eighteen and shows signs of witchcraft–Hester Beck had promised she would return, and her murder was eighteen years ago. She escapes into the woods, where she encounters her friend Bernice, and meets more ghosts in an old graveyard. There her skinless young familiar saves her from her father, and she later meets another monster. She gets a ride into town with the pharmacist, who explains Hester’s connection to many of the townspeople: she literally created them. In the end Emmy (with the help of her father) convinces them that while she may be the witch reborn, she does not have the same evil intent.
The collection includes an extensive sketchbook section. Tyler Crook describes his character design process, and talks about his decision to color the book with watercolors. It certainly gives the art a handmade look, well suited to the subject. There are also a few pinups by other artists. Cullen Bunn shares several chapters from the serialized novel he originally intended to run on his website. There are changes, most notably the name change from Madi (short for Madrigal) to Emmy. But I was more struck by the similarities. Bunn took quite a bit of dialog directly from the prose story.
Emmy starts using her new status to help her neighbors: healing the sick, and making peace with the haints. When her twin sister Kammi arrives, Emmy is surprised and delighted, having had no idea she had a sister. Perhaps predictably, the situation quickly devolves into the classic “evil twin” scenario. Kammi begins mobilizing the haints, hungry for power–an approach directly opposite from Emmy’s gentle fence mending.
Things look bad for Emmy when Kammi and her band of haints confront her. But she discovers a power (and a will) she never knew she had. The collection ends with another sketchbook, further illuminating Crook’s approach to the artwork. This arc includes one of my favorite images so far: the spectral reflection of a group of townspeople on the side of Kammi’s black limousine.
Harrow County Vol. 3: Snake Doctor
Cullen Bunn, script; Carla Speed McNeil, art, chapter 1; Jenn Manley Lee, colors, chapter 1; Tyler Crook, art, chapters 2-3; Hannah Christenson, art and letters, chapter 4; Tyler Crook, cover art, chapter breaks, and letters
Dark Horse Books, 2016
The first collection with guest artists–two issues of the four–so the main story doesn’t progress as much as is did in the first two collections. The side trips are interesting, though. Carla Speed McNeil’s chapter features a mysterious stranger who attempts to turn Emmy’s familiar (the skinless boy) against her. The nature of the story gives McNeil free rein to work in her own style (although the few panels with Emmy in them are certainly true to Crook’s character design).
Crook’s chapters reveal the presence of another witch in Harrow County, the snake doctor of the title. They mainly feature Emmy’s friend Bernice. At first she is afraid of the new witch, until she discovers that she is not evil. In fact she has been opposing Hester Beck’s influence, and she recruits Bernice to aid in her mission. I expect this to broaden Bernice’s role in the series going forward.
Hannah Christenson’s chapter does feature Emmy. But she has a style quite dissimilar to Crook’s: broader, more cartoony, like children’s book illustrations. The chapter shows Emmy’s attempt to help a family with their haint problem–only to discover that their house is not haunted, it is a haint itself. The final panel has a shocking reveal: the little girl tells Emmy that Kammi told her to seek help. Maybe Kammi is not completely gone? That would certainly be a not-unexpected event in this haunted county.
The sketchbook section includes artwork and commentary from all three artists. Crook demonstrates how his penciling style has changed. Around issue #5 he started penciling a lot cleaner, to speed up the process so he could keep up with the monthly schedule.
Carla Speed McNeil’s issue about the mysterious stranger looked like a one-off, a little side tale mainly involving Emmy’s familiar, the skinless boy. When he reappears in this arc he introduces himself as Levi–and tells Emmy that he is family. He brings her to a large meeting lodge (which has mysteriously appeared in Harrow) to meet the rest of the family of the title. They are a seemingly ageless group of supernatural beings, each with their own talent–and the witch Hester had been one of them, before she was exiled for killing one of their own and taking her power.
Emmy is naturally suspicious, but the group seems friendly enough, and she is happy to learn more about her background. After getting to know Emmy a bit, they tell her that she must give up her home in Harrow County. It is their rule to travel constantly, only coming together occasionally to meet as a family. Not only that, but Harrow County itself must be destroyed! It is thoroughly polluted by Hester’s play for godhood. As most of them spread out into Harrow to begin the destruction, Emmy finds the power within to protect her home. She banishes the family and the lodge from Harrow. Not even the family knows where she is sending them.
This was an odd arc. It revealed some deep history about Emmy and Harrow County, but a huge event that would have completely changed the story’s direction is simply stopped at the climax. It’s unclear what effect any of it will have going forward. The family may or may not return, and Emmy’s new knowledge about her past may or may not influence her future behavior. It’s a bit like the classic superhero crossover, where the world is apparently changed forever, only to be put back to the status quo at the end.
In addition to character and cover sketches, this Sketchbook reprints the entire Issue #15 script, accompanied by Tyler Crook’s layouts. It is a fluid process, where the layouts add, subtract, or change elements in the script to make it work visually.