Created by: JT Petty, Hilary Florido
Published by: First Second
ISBN: 1596431008 (Amazon)
Late last year I decided, nearly out of the blue, that I had a remarkable lack of westerns in my collection and that I might take special pains to remedy that situation. It’s not so much that I’m fond of westerns. I’m not overly fond of genre fiction. Though I’ll enjoy the occasional sci-fi, superhero, or fantasy tale if it lopes across my path, I don’t generally set out to pick up the latest detective thriller, survival horror, or baseball romance. Once upon a time, perhaps, but not so much these days. Still, I do like to maintain a diverse library—more to the end of lending (as a form of comics evangelism) than to satisfy any personal whims of mood or taste.
I think what had spurred me to the decision to seek out more westerns specifically was reading the second volume of Mignola and Arcudi’s Witchfinder. Where the first volume is entrenched in the generous gloom of merry old Britain, the next takes the Witchfinder to the Old West, to fight zombies or some such. I didn’t actually enjoy it all that well, but it did remind me that I didn’t own a single graphic novel western. So the next week, when I saw the cover to Dark Horse’s first Milo Manara collection and read that within its pages was held a sumptuous frontier built in the shadow of the Spaghetti Westerns, I was sold. As it turns out, this was a mistake. That single book quenched any desire I had to seek out more westerns.
So when I was given the opportunity to spend time reading Bloody Chester or something else, I chose something else. As it turns out, this was a mistake. Bloody Chester is just a fantastic little book and something that pretty much everyone over fourteen* should check out.
One of the fun things about the Western is that people have been subverting the genre for-almost-ever. At least since High Noon turned its tail on white-hatted heroism back in 1952. I don’t know about before that (maybe it took the advent of Noir to spur the Western similarly), but at least since Gary Cooper threw his badge in the dirt, the Western has been a place to toy with an established moral ruleset. The Searchers, The Shootist, A Fistful of Dollars (and the rest of Leone’s Spaghettis), High Plains Drifter, and The Unforgiven. Each of these worked so well as they did because they played loose with viewer expectations that had been ingrained by social understanding of a mythologized Western. By now, perhaps the only way to subvert the Western is to subvert our expectation of subversion, to play the story as a straight return to an Old Timey Western ethic that perhaps ever only existed in the early days of Hollywood. Bloody Chester doesn’t quite do this but does put some effort toward twisting reader expectations.
I won’t come right out and describe the kind of book I thought I’d be reading as I made my way through Bloody Chester's opening pages. The book seems to evoke one kind of story only to leave the reader wondering if that was all in her imagination—I certainly wonder if it was all in mine. Creators Petty and Florido craft their story ably enough that I cannot rightly tell if I was reading signs that they put in place with some measure of intentionality or if my cognizance of the creative zeitgeist caused me to read my own presuppositions into the text. A delicious proposition.
What we’re left with is something simpler than what I expected; and yet in that simple story are revealed complexities of character that might have been overwhelmed had the narrative gone in more lurid directions. Which is not to say Bloody Chester isn’t lurid—it is. Just not that much so.
Petty’s story, like so many latter-day Westerns, butters its bread on the capitalist shenanigans that marked the railroads’ journey west. Chester Kates (Bloody Chester to you, or Lady Kate if you prefer) is hired to burn the town of Whale to nothing—to the end of inexpensively paving the way for coming rail. The situation in Whale—mostly deserted—is not what it seems, and unearthing the truth to this mystery and surviving long enough to burn the town comprises the duration of the book.
It’s a good story and one well told. Petty writes his characters well, employing a naturalistic kind of ungrammatical dialogue that one might find in a Flannery O’Conner graphic novella, replacing should haves with should ofs. Petty, in concert with Florido, crafts some subtle, rewarding character moments (such as Chester explaining to Caroline the origin of his ruthless-sounding nickname). And there’s enough foundation laid that the climax of the book’s climax plays out believably enough,** what with foreshadowing and all.
Bloody Chester is, apparently, Hilary Florido’s first graphic novel and I’d like to say that it shows just a little bit—but then again I can’t quite tell for certain whether the sometimes scrappy look of her figures is by style or by license or by the need to practice more. It’s very possibly that the answer lies anywhere within those options. At any rate, the book looks good and with a few small exceptions (like where I couldn’t quite tell what someone was holding), she acquits herself marvelously. Her depictions of Caroline are positively adorable and she experiments enough with panel design to keep the book lively.
2012 has been a good year for comics and Bloody Chester adds one more to that tally. It’s anyone’s guess whether the year will see a major work like an Asterios Polyp (2009) or a Duncan the Wonder Dog (2010) or a Daytripper or Big Questions or Habibi (all 2011). Maybe 2012 won’t see anyone’s magnum opus—but if smaller, less ambitious books like Bloody Chester keep coming out, this may be one of the best years for comics yet. I get excited just thinking about it.
* The age, fourteen, was pretty much arrived at arbitrarily. I really just wanted to say that anyone mature enough to appreciate a story told with subtlety should appreciate Bloody Chester.
** Well, save for a skyward-fired shot that takes (to my ballisticsly-uneducated eye) an unnaturally long time to return to the ground. Maybe it takes exactly the right amount of time, but that would surprise me. This possibly-physics-bending instance took me slightly out of story for a moment while I stopped to think about bullets and universal laws and how fast a horse-drawn wagon can travel.
Now you’re conjuring images of the conclusion to Chinatown, aren’t you?
Good Ok Bad features reviews of comics, graphic novels, manga, et cetera using a rare and auspicious three-star rating system. Point systems are notoriously fiddly, so here it's been pared down to three simple possibilities:
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I am Seth T. Hahne and these are my reviews.
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