A Journey into Adulthood With Witches and Haints: Cullen Bunn and Tyler Crook’s Harrow County

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Supernatural creatures seem to dominate media attention in cycles. In a matter of 5 years, we’ve seen vampires return to vogue with an oversaturation of vampire themed TV, books, and films that made the blood-sucking motif transition into the trendy and then the passé. At the moment, the zombie craze may just reach a similar oversaturation line, forcing the subgenre to also begin to lose its steam, which means that a new supernatural horror creature can take over. Will we see a return of the werewolf next? Or Frankenstein? If comics continue to influence TV and film and vice versa, then I suspect the new supernatural fixture to capture the terror of the  public will be…witches.

Witches? Is there anything new to add to the mythology? Haven’t witches remained in our collective imaginations for hundreds of years? While witches never really disappeared from the horror genre over the years, the last time I can recall witches in the foreground of public attention is in the 1990s, and those witches tended to be more of the sillier, more kid-friendly kind (think Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Hocus Pocus, Halloween Town, and late night episodes of Bewitched on Nick at Nite). Based on the enormous success of Scott Snyder’s Wytches, it looks like the cute witches of the 90s are getting a makeover, one that brings them closer to the primordial connection of witches to the earth and to evil.

Taking a similar approach with the grim, eerie witches of Snyder’s creation, Cullen Bunn, the mind behind the magnificent Western series, Sixth Gun, creates Harrow County, the fictional setting that gives the the series its name and the place destined to feel the influence of Hester, a witch who once healed the citizens of the area with her powers but eventually succumbed to the evil around her and in her inherent power. Though the residents of Harrow County killed Hester, her connection to the earth allows her to live on, particularly through her ability to create humans from elements of the earth, and to carry on her own spirit, she has created Emmy, a child born from a tree. While everyone in Harrow knows about Emmy’s non-human origins, she does not, and on the eve of her eighteenth birthday, when dreams become strange and people begin to gather in the night, Emmy and her powers begin to awaken.

Cover for Harrow Country Volume One: Countless Haints

As with any strong horror work, the horror here represents something more universal; in Harrow County, Emmy’s discovery of her power and her attempt to wrangle its darkness symbolize a less supernatural experience almost all of us go through: growth into adulthood. For Emmy, adulthood not only means learning more about life away from the farm she knows but also learning about the forest, all of the Haints (ghosts of wandering spirits who cannot seem to leave the world) who wander there, and the graveness of her powers. Emmy’s struggle to understand the internal and external ambiguities between good and evil in her world exaggerate the belief formation process we experience as we develop as adults and begin to understand that good and evil can be relative rather than exact.

Consequently, while Harrow County certainly exists as a work of the horror genre, it is ultimately a coming of age tale. As a result, the core plot of the series focusing on Emmy’s growth and conflict does not contribute anything particularly groundbreaking and is a tiny bit stale. However, Tyler Crook’s artwork and Cullen Bunn’s imagination for the creatures Emmy encounters strengthens Harrow County and pulls it up from falling into being yet another alternative form of the bildungsroman. In Harrow County, there are uniquely creepy ideas and images. From glowing skeleton ghosts to multi-eyed creatures that look like minotaurs crossed with Giger’s Aliens to a decrepit tree with jaws and crooked teeth to a little boy who can shed his skin and use it as a communication device while the rest of his body travels elsewhere and reports back on any impending danger, the creepy crawlies of Harrow County are the reason to return to this series. Bunn’s ideas for characters capture your fear and dread, and Crook’s illustrations colored with loose and haunting watercolors make them just real enough to be believable but also loose enough to be almost mythical and archetypal.

Emmy discovering the boy whose skin can speak about what his flesh sees

The first volume of Harrow County, Countless Haints, includes character development sketches as well as the original prose chapters for the story, which Bunn originally intended to publish in parts online. These materials provide an insight into Crook and Bunn’s collaboration and their thought process in creating a complex setting, making the first volume a fun first read but also an enjoyable re-read after getting a better sense of the creators’ thoughts on the world they have created. For someone taking a beginner’s step into contemporary horror comics, Harrow County Countless Haints is a strong candidate as a starter book; it has a balance of horror and non-horror concepts, providing some chills but with the familiarity of a coming of age drama.      

Though I prefer Snyder’s take on the witch, Bunn and Crook have undoubtedly created a fascinating, unsettling, and scary world in Harrow County that I hope will get further incorporated into the plot as the series progresses. After the first four issues, Harrow County has promise, but I would like to see it steer away from familiar journey to adulthood devices and move toward exploring the combination of its environmental and external horror with psychological internal horror for Emmy, which will take her character on more uncharted paths. Regardless, if my prediction comes true that witches will soon dominate our television sets and movie screens, I will look forward to seeing a version of Harrow County beyond comicbook pages.

Harrow County Volume One: Countless Haints collects issues 1-4 of the series, which is written by Cullen Bunn and illustrated by Tyler Crook. It is available now via Dark Horse Comics. 

 

The Mythology of The Sixth Gun

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As many may know, I really love westerns.

They seem to always have a paradoxical moral simplicity and complexity. They almost always have a protagonist with questionable motivations. And yet, the good almost always triumphs the evil, leading to an overwhelming catharsis for the reader or watcher (depending on the medium). Consequently, the simplicity of the fundamental structure of the basic western lends itself to transformation and evolution without losing its core.

After spending some time looking around for the next series to read, I found this list from IGN. Yes, I was a little weary of the source, but I figured I’d at least try to read something that other people are talking about. After scrolling through, I settled on The Sixth Gun, a western set in Reconstruction era America.

The Sixth Gun Vol. 1 Cold Dead Fingers

The Sixth Gun is an excellent example of a successful transformation of a western. It has the archetypal characters and themes of a western with new layers of horror and the supernatural that could only occur in the comic book, rather than film, form. Cullen Bunn and Brian Hurtt, the creators of the series, realized that despite their inability to mimic the epic film landscapes and the tense duels in the comic book form, they had the ability to add fantasy elements that could not be captured in any old western films. While The Sixth Gun adds innovative ideas and characters to the basic structure of the western, it also pays homage and reverence to a genre that the creators clearly love.

At the opening of The Sixth Gun Vol. 1 Cold Dead Fingers, we meet the sinister looking Mrs. Hume, a widow of the former Confederate General Oleander Bedford Hume, as she speaks to Pinkerton detectives she has hired to find her husband and some of his possessions. After that very brief introduction, we meet Drake Sinclair, a man dressed like a Pinkerton, as he approaches the prophetic spirits of the Gallows Tree (a really interesting take on the hanging tree motif). Sinclair is looking for some treasure and the spirits of the tree send him to the home of the Montcrief family. From the introduction of the two story branches, we immediately get the sense that Mrs. Hume is going to be our force of evil and Sinclair our flawed and seemingly dubious protagonist.

The story then jumps to the Montcrief farm, where Becky Montcrief, is taking care of her ill father. As her father gives her instructions on how to live after he has passed, he hands her a box and asks her to get rid of it in a place where no one can find it. As he begins to explain why, a crowd approaches the farm, and a shootout begins. The Pinkertons have arrived, and they are looking for the contents of the box, a gun with a small red symbol brandished on the ivory handle.

After, one of the Pinkertons kills the father, Becky picks up the gun and immediately faints. When another man tries to pick up the gun, and it burns him with a green fire, we immediately understand that the desired gun has supernatural powers that must be valuable to Mrs. Hume. When Sinclair arrives at the scene and recognizes the father Montcrief, he gets details about the goal of the Pinkertons from a dying man shot in the gunfight, galvanizing the plot.

The setting then abruptly shifts to a mission with a group of priests preparing for a brutal fight. When an army of ghouls arrives at the mission, they demand for the body of their leader, the former General Oleander Hume. After a bloody battle between the army and the fathers of the mission, the General is excavated from a well, and his ghost-like, demon form awakens and immediately demands his gun.

As the plot continues, we slowly find out more about the goblin General Hume and his army of the undead. We also learn more about Sinclair, who is much closer to Hume’s nefarious army than expected. Most interestingly, we learn about the gun that we are introduced to in the Montcrief home; it is one of a set of six guns which never need to be reloaded and each grant a specific power to the owner.

With one gun in the hands of Becky Montclief and the other five in the hands of Hume’s leading commanders, the complete powers of the collection cannot be harvested by General Hume. On one branch of the narrative, we follow Hume’s hunt for his gun. On the other branch of the narrative, we travel with Becky Montcrief, who is taken under Drake Sinclair and another bounty hunter, Billjohn O’Henry’s wing, on the quest to find the General’s treasure at a fort with a pit leading to the mouth of hell.

The rest of the first volume of The Sixth Gun follows the cat and mouse chase between General Hume and Sinclair. In the process of the chase and the clashes, we meet an incredible spectrum of characters ranging from a giant bird demon who guards the valleys in the canyon to soldiers of the dead killed by Hume who emerge as sand figures. As we encounter each of these fantastic characters and creatures, each one becomes a landmark hurdle and counter forces marking the course of our protagonists’ odyssey.

While the plot sounds like one engulfed in fantasy, The Sixth Gun is not exactly a fantasy or mystical western. Throughout the narrative, buzzards reappear as the storytellers of the supernatural events and as the guides in the transition from one’s current life to the afterlife. Given that the buzzards are often the last witnesses to a disastrous event, they are able to give the final words about life on Earth and are the only ones who are left to explain all of the secrets of our existence. The buzzards serve as a chorus to the odyssey, revealing the mythology approach of The Sixth Gun.

What is great about The Sixth Gun is that it a western Homeric odyssey, with myths conveying a spiritual reverence for nature, an understanding of the thin line between the present life and the underworld, the manifestation of evil, and the plight of hubris. It is a western at its heart, but it also provides an insight into the face of evil and how to avoid and escape it. The Sixth Gun is able to use elements of the supernatural without straying too far from reality, and by the end of the first volume, we are able to step away with a myth about decline of General Oleander Hume from his hubris and the triumph of Drake Sinclair when he finally understands courage, humility, and self-sacrifice.

The Sixth Gun Volumes 1-6 are available via Oni Press.