I’ve been thinking a lot about the power of stories lately, and I don’t mean power in the way a story can make you feel on an emotional level. I mean power in the way that they can shape our perceptions. The perception of the American West after the Civil War was often touted as a golden age in American history, a time when we would heal old wounds and tamed the wild parts of our land that eventually resulted in riches and glory that made America the most powerful nation on Earth. It’s only been relatively recently (the past fifty or so years) where the American consciousness has realized that perception is bullshit. In reality the time after the Civil War resulted in more damage and death than we could ever imagine and the West practically became a lawless wasteland where you could get anything you wanted given you had a gun and the chance to use it. But we were fed a story that warped our perceptions of this time making the time look almost heroically noble. Which is why, while reading Bloody Chester, I realized that not only was it a story that accurately shows what the Old West was like but it's also, at its core, a story built upon false perceptions, and how those false perceptions can bring ruin.
Written by JT Petty, the story centers on Chester Kates, a teenage boy living in a frontier town who spends most of his days getting the crap kicked out of him. One day, after a particularly bad beating, he’s given an offer that might finally turn his luck around: head to the abandoned town of Whale and burn it to the ground to make way for the coming railroad. It sounds easy enough and a good way to get out of town, but when he arrives he finds the town isn't quite as abandoned as everyone thinks it is. In order to complete his job and get the final occupants out of town he has to solve the mystery of what happened in Whate and what’s keeping those left from leaving.
Petty is primarily known as a writer and director of horror movies, which is the reason I wanted to read this in the first place. I was a fan of his last outing in the Western genre, The Burrowers, and his background in film shows here as the book has some distinct cinematic flourishes. And although this book is labeled with a horror tag, the horror elements within are more circumstantial than anything else. Instead it’s more of a coming-of-age story with horror elements, as the main character figures out just how he’s going to survive in these brutal times. But along the way he’s tempted to find another path in the name of young love and the possibility of finding a family he’s never had. So it's not all dark.
The biggest strength of the book though is that it’s a story about stories. It's a parable about perception and how one well-crafted story can make or destroy people. Rumor or fact, stories have poser. Several characters in this book use stories to change people’s perceptions to gain notoriety or keep people away from what they think is theirs. Inevitably however these perceptions falter after instances of impotence or the story spiraling out of control, which lead them into lives of squalor or worse. It all comes come to a head at the end of the book, but I won't ruin that for you.
Hilary Florido's art lends itself well to this kind of story; it has a good flow and sense of pacing. At first glance, Forido's art looks relatively simple but there’s a level of sophistication to it that just sort of sneaks up on you. She uses the book's numerous silent moments to great effect by establishing an effective overtone of loneliness and an ever-present sense of dread. Perfect for the horror angle. My favorite part of her art though is her control over the character's faces, often a problem for artists. Her art allows the characters to convey complex emotions with just a few simple lines. (Just look at the first panel in the first art sample on this page. You can see the hate written all over his face with minimal detail, even without the dialog.) When a character is seriously considering what to do next, you can see them wrestling with the decision which, often in this book, could end in bloodshed.
If there is a criticism it’s that the pages sometimes get a too crowded with panels. However I don’t want to blame this on Florido because comics are a joint effort and this was likely a decision based jointly on art and script. The pages never make you feel like your losing out on any visual information, but the overcrowding does make the pages hard to read at times. Thankfully these pages are rare so I think it’s worth chalking up to creative choice.
I attached the line “ I’d Win Some Fights If I Could” spoken by Bloody Chester's protagonist to the title of this review because in the end that line defines the Western genre to me. The genre is made up of stories and characters that just want a win by any means necessary but more often than not, their prizes are lies and warped perceptions of who they actually are. Bloody Chester is a great representation of that, and although there are some small problems it's ultimately a damn good read.
TL;DR: Bloody Chester is a very engaging coming-of-age tale with horror elements and some very solid artwork. A compelling read.
Bloody Chester is written by JT Petty and illustrated by Hilary Florido. Published by First Second Books, look for it in your local comic book shop on July 3. Or you can support Spandexless by ordering it through our Amazon web store.
A review copy of Bloody Chester was obtained by Spandexless through Netgalley.