Long running comic series are hard to lay out in a way that develops and keeps momentum rolling for readers, hence the frequent resets and reboots you see from the Big Two for their legacy characters. But it is most certainly more difficult to maintain that momentum when working with a horror comic–a comic that must be designed to keep you fascinated and/or terrified each issue.
Harrow County, published by Dark Horse, written by Cullen Bunn and lavishly illustrated by Tyler Crook, reached its 22nd issue last week, which is a long run for a horror comic that’s not anthology in format. It has reached for volumes and is still going strong, spinning out of a concept that Bunn originally developed as an online prose universe, following the “Countless Haints” of a small southern county. The nature of the storytelling invites asides and discussions of related characters beyond the main focus–Emmy, a reincarnated magical being striving to be better than her former self. Or perhaps to simply find her former self’s better qualities.
Each issue of the comic has introduced us, gradually, to more and more “haints”, supernatural creatures gamboling around the county, many of them called up or created by the witch Hester in older times. Emmy now looks after them, and sees beauty and loyalty even in their grotesqueness. By now, Emmy has quite a haint-populated world, and we have come to know the sparks of positive qualities in many of them. Or at least see why human enmity has prompted their own distrust of humanity. Bunn and Crook are posed with the question: where do we go from here?
They have made two really excellent choices in issue #22 that take the series onward in a way that not only maintains momentum, but establishes a direction for future issues. Firstly, they have brought the character Bernice back in, Emmy’s childhood friend and fellow book-lover. We witnessed a short arc where Bernice gets taken under the wing of an older, magic-wise woman who is protective of Harrow County against the haints, and how this influence actually drove her friendship with Emmy into icier territory.
But now, returning to Bernice, Bunn and Crook set up a deep and difficult conflict between Bernice and Emmy as two alternative philosophies to magic, to haints, and to the world in general, it seems. This is a move that can contribute to the longevity of the series. As interesting as it is to have Emmy fighting supernatural foes in their morally ambiguous realm, it’s even more thorny and complicated to have her struggling with her best friend who firmly believes she’s doing the right thing. As much as I dread this rift between them, I have to admit it’s a great choice for dramatic storytelling.
But the second thing that Bunn and Crook do in this issue to keep up the momentum of Harrow County is to introduce different kinds of haints that you might not have imagined really exist in Emmy and Bernice’s world. We know all kinds of strange creatures and beasts wander, unique little spirits of nature, both peaceable and tricksterish. And we know there are more malevolent, predatory beings. In this issue, the creators introduce a predatory being that Bernice decides to kill through arcane methods, which starts the chillier tone of the issue off in the right direction, but also brings Bernice and Emmy face to face with a truly creepy being who wills destruction on the world. This is an immensely disturbing spirit of a small boy trapped by “lock magic” in a house that’s crumbling around him.
We don’t know everything about the why and how of this haint, and that’s part of the effect of the horror being introduced. But we see him in his rage and fury, and we “see” through Emmy’s eyes what the creature wants to do to the world in his rage. Interestingly, we don’t really find out whether Emmy’s ability to master haints and render them more neutral could’ve taken control of this boy’s destructiveness, but we do definitely “see” Bernice’s point of view and why she’s determined to shut him down.
The fact that I’ve been reading Harrow County from the beginning, and am encountering my most disturbing haint in issue #22 is a great thing–it really speaks to Bunn and Crook’s ability to keep generating new ideas and taking the world of Harrow County further into horror for readers. But they are also setting up some very solid plot foundations for a compelling series by squaring off two main characters in what could be an entrenched ideological battle over magic, its use, and what the greater good actually is for Harrow County.
Harrow County #22 is out in shops. For more about the series, you can find that here.