No other genre of storytelling has integrated itself so thoroughly into the American popular culture consciousness the way the western has. Which makes it all the more surprising that we don’t really see them anymore. If you think in terms of film, at one point in American history there were multiple western films being released on any given week. But at some point people began believing that westerns had little bearing on the modern world. Now you’ll be hard pressed to find one come out during the year. It’s the same way with comics. At one point there were tons of western titles on the shelves month in month out and now there are hardly any. And the ones that do get published tend to blend the western with another genre, whether it be horror (The Sixth Gun), sci-fi (Cowboys and Aliens), or comedy (Reed Gunther). Not to say those titles are bad. Far from it. But it does make you wonder what it would be like to see a straight western next to those titles complete with stories of good men pushed to the brink, high noon gunfights, and men and women finding their way in the increasingly hostile environment that is the West.
So the possibility of seeing those stories and others like it within the pages of Tall Tales from the Badlands is compelling as hell. Written by brothers Sean and Seamus Fahey, Tall Tales is a fifty-two page anthology comic with five stories covering a wide range of western standards. The anthology format allows for a more versatile venue for these stories but as such the anthology can’t really be reviewed as a whole. Instead I'd like to look at its individual stories.
"Thicker than Water" (Written by Sean Fahey with art by Lisandro Estherren) is the story of outlaw Nate Miller who turns in his oldest friend Hank Russell to be hanged to save his family from suffering repercussions for his past, but in a last ditch effort to restore his lost honor he promises to track down his friend's estranged sister and deliver one final message. The western has long been characterized by bad men trying to find their one shot at redemption, but this one skews that a bit as Nate doesn’t outwardly feel all that bad about his outlaw ways. But turning his friend over to certain death causes him to have an existential crisis which the writing does bring across. Ultimately we understand why Nate would go out of his way to meet the sister of the man he is responsible for killing. Estherren’s style relies heavily on big inky blacks and a pretty stark contrast between darkness and light to set the scenes.
"Abigail" (Written by Seamus Fahey with art by Jose Holder) centers on the titular frontier wife and mother when her husband is contracted to help track down an outlaw gang. Unfortunately, when the father is away the gang comes calling and it’s up to Abigail to protect her home and her family. The scene of our hero leaving his family behind to pursue an outlaw is an old one, and so is the scene where the outlaws inevitably take the hero's family hostage. Which makes it pretty refreshing to see the wife (and son) take brutal center stage while the traditional hero father is reduced to little more than a background character. Abigail may not be an incredibly nuanced character (but honestly what character is in twelve pages), but you understand her motivations perfectly and what she is capable of doing to maintain them. The art by Holder actually had me looking back at the credits page as I thought it was Rafael Albuquerque originally. Not to say Holder’s style is a derivative of Albuquerque's but he he does have many of the same style elements, from his rough line work and facial features. But the work is well done and makes the outlaws look twisted and cruel while Abigail is drawn almost angelically pure. There are a few confusing panels within but ultimately the storytelling carries through.
"The Runt" (Written by Sean Fahey with art by J.C. Grande) centers around a dog protecting his wounded master in a desert wasteland. This is by far the sparsest story of the book. It's almost completely silent, which is understandable, as the last thing we want is a talking or internally monologuing dog. So this is really a story that depends on Grande’s visual storytelling abilities and those abilities are fantastic. The flow of the action is always clear and you never wonder what happened between the panels that got us there. He also gives the titular runt enough versatility through its facial expressions that you know what he’s feeling at all times thus getting rid of the problem of even needing to hear the dog's thoughts.
"A Thousand Deaths" (Written by Seamus Fahey with art by Juan Romera) follow a man during a high noon showdown who knows a thing or two about dying. Probably the weakest story of the book but not for a lack of trying, it’s a perfectly well constructed story and has a pretty good twist at the end. The problem is that the twist feels really out of place for the book we’ve been reading so far. It would be a mistake to reveal the twist here but it is worth saying that after reading the previous stories, all of which were straight westerns, the twist was a bit disconcerting.
And finally "Easy Livin'" (Written by Sean Fahey with art by Borja “Borch” Pena) follows a frontiersman as he becomes more acquainted with the ever evolving tools of his trade. This, at least to me, felt like the strongest story of the book as it exemplified my earlier comment of a western story commenting on the modern world. What the story says ultimately sneaks up on you have that wonderful “oh” moment that you wish all stories have. Pena’s art is effective and clean and has the best storytelling flow of the book next to Grande but ultimately Pena has the more visually pleasing style.
TL;DR: The enjoyment of most anthologies will vary from person to person, and this one isn’t an exception, but in the current marketplace a straight western anthology is definitely unique. There are flaws but ultimately it succeeds in showcasing some rising talent and shining some light on a somewhat neglected genre.
Tall Tales from the Badlands is written by Sean and Seamus Kevin Fahey with art by Lisandro Estherren, Jose Holder, J.C. Grande, Juan Romera, and Borja "Borch" Pena throughout the course of the anthology. It is self-published by the Faheys' small press, Black Jack Press. You can purchase it both digitally and in hard copy.
A review PDF of Tall Tales from the Badlands was graciously provided to Spandexless by the publisher.