Comic Review: Freaks of the Heartland

Dark Horse Comics is re-releasing the Spectrum Gold Award winning miniseries, Freaks of the Heartland, as a deluxe hard covered graphic novel. This gem was released originally back in 2004 as a six issue trade paperback written by famed horror writer Steve Niles, who is also responsible for other great reads like Criminal Macabre and 30 Days of Night. This story is brought together by accomplished illustrator Greg Ruth, whose talents are also showcased in more recent reads like Sudden Gravity and Alabaster: Wolves.

Freaks of the Heartland is really a testament to how diverse Niles and Ruth can be in the name of storytelling. Its subject matter and feel is a far cry from the blood drenched thriller that is 30 Days of Night, and the artistic styling is nothing like the tight lining and bold gray scaling in Sudden Gravity. For two guys who’ve made the horror genre their own they really showed an entirely different side of what they’re capable of with this story.

This story is centered on two brothers; the older brother named Trevor Owens and his baby brother Will. Trevor has always looked after his younger brother Will, who is grossly deformed and isn’t allowed to stay in the house with the rest of the family.  Will actually stays chained in their barn; away from the few people in the small town they live in. Tension progressively runs higher and higher amongst the small community and tough choices need to be made; the kind of choices children shouldn’t have to make. Through these choices they find out they’re not the only ones in town dealing with this kind of problem.

Reading that kind of premise, I’m sure this doesn’t sound like any horror story you’d be into if you’re into horror comics/graphic novels; which is understandable. However, at its core, this is still a horror story. Much unlike the sort survival horror you’d expect in the genre, Freaks of the Heartland deals more with tragedy, loss of innocence in children, how they deal with it and how those around them react. The story is written and illustrated in a way that it’s easy for the reader to relate to these characters, and from their standpoint, this situation is terrifying. Past that feeling of terrifying uncertainty, there’s a full range of emotions and social issues that are touched upon like empathy, family roles, discrimination, and duty. From both sides of the fence it feels personal, and whenever things calm down you, as the reader still have a feeling of uneasiness coming from these characters.

I would like to give all the credit to Steve Niles for creating such a brilliant story, but in all honesty, no one could have brought this together the way it is the way Greg Ruth does. There is blood and gore in this book, yet it isn’t terribly graphic and doesn’t need to be. Where there was more rendering done and where parts are given less detail is deliberate. It all contributes to the story. The panels get brighter and have higher contrast when the story takes an intense turn and gets more cool and relaxed when things are calm. The children’s faces are illustrated very clearly with softer brush strokes and relaxed colors, as opposed to the adults’ over all appearances are shrouded in more shadow with heavier, more aggressive brush strokes and colors which makes them seem more monstrous than the deformed children in a way. All the while, the pallet keeps up with general earth tones that compliment the heartland theme very well. Simply put, the artwork in this story is beautiful.

If there was any negative about this book that could be pointed out is that you could finish it within an hour, which is kind of unfortunate. It’s really the other edge of the double blade on this sword. The story will keep your attention from beginning to end, and in most cases, you won’t want to put it down. You look at it and think “hey, one hundred sixty some odd pages is a lot of material,” but the book is paced so well that the end comes quickly. It doesn’t ruin the story, it’s just deceptively short.

If you’re into horror comics but want to take a break from the zombies, vampires and aliens; this is the book for you. If you’re not into horror comics, I’d still suggest this title for you. I’d suggest anyone into comics without super heroes. $29.99 is worth the price for a really good story in a hard covered book. Freaks of the Heartland will be available in hard cover on Dark Horse Comic’s website on June 27th, but in the mean time, it is available for pre-order here.

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