I’ve fallen behind on my reading, so my reviews have been coming slowly these days (I’m trying to bank a bunch, so I’ll have several days in a row soon, but not right now), and for that I apologize. I know we’re more of a pop culture blog around here and a lot of our readers don’t buy as many comics as they used to, but we do like to keep up with some, and time just is not on my side these days. However, I did read the first five issues of Farmhand over the Thanksgiving weekend, so I thought I’d write about it. Farmhand is Rob Guillory‘s follow-up to Chew, and he’s not only drawing it, but he’s writing it as well. Taylor Wells, the long-time color flatter on Chew, is coloring it, and Kody Chamberlain letters the book. Each issue, naturally, is $3.99, and it’s published by Image. As usual, I have to point out that I like Guillory as a person – I’ve met him more than once, I’m friends with him on Facebook, and he’s a really cool dude. So I’m naturally inclined to like the book, but also as always, I will try to be as professional as possible when writing about it.
It’s probably impossible to write about Farmhand without referencing Chew, but I’ll try to keep that to a minimum. Chew was Guillory’s first big comic book, and he’s as associated with it as John Layman, who wrote it, as it ran for 60 issues plus a few specials, so Guillory’s association with it was long (and, let’s hope, fruitful). While he didn’t write it, he did add a lot of the background jokes (which appear in Farmhand as well), and while Farmhand is definitely different in tone than Chew was, the central premise would not be out of place in the older comic. Guillory introduces us to Jedidiah Jenkins, who discovered a way to grow a seed that is basically a new type of human stem cell. So he can grow body parts – any body part he wants – and graft it to humans, where it becomes indistinguishable from the rest of the body. Pretty handy, that. The story so far focuses on his son, Ezekiel, who left town (Freetown, Louisiana – Guillory lives in Louisiana, which I assume is why he set the book there) seven years earlier after a fight with his father and is now returning with his family – wife, daughter, and son. His sister, Andrea, who also left, but to join the Army, and she was never estranged from their dad, works on Jedidiah’s farm, which has grown over the years into a multimillion-dollar business. So Zeke is trying to reconcile with his dad (his mother is dead, and it seems that might have something to do with their argument), trying to find work (he’s a comic book creator, but of course they don’t make any money!), and there’s a lot going on in town.
So the horror similarities to Chew are there, but Guillory changes the way we see them, which is clever. In Chew, Tony Chu was a cop, and the horrors he saw were part of the job, and when he started seeing more of that, it’s not exactly that he was prepared for it, but he approached things differently. By twisting the horror concept a little, Guillory makes this a different kind of comic. First of all, of course, is that Jedidiah’s seed, while horrifying, is the basis of a big business, and Guillory does a nice job of showing how it really helps people – a woman comes to Jedidiah with a destroyed nose, and after Jedidiah attaches a flower to it, she regains a nose and she looks like she used to. The horror is in the way Jedidiah grows and harvests the body parts, and of course things start to go wrong with them, but he also shows the benefits of them nicely. So the horror is a bit muted, but that just means the truly horrific parts are a bit more disturbing. Some of the body parts might have “minds” of their own, and some of them seem to be malfunctioning in some way, so of course things are going to get worse. But Guillory doesn’t let that overwhelm the fact that this is, medically at least, a “good thing.”
He also throws a lot at the wall in these five issues. Guillory has learned that you don’t need to explain everything right away, and there’s a lot to process in these five issues. We get industrial spies using children; forced body part grafts that probably go horribly wrong (it’s unclear yet if that’s what happened); hints about Zeke’s mother’s death; Zeke’s daughter Abigail having a strange and possibly sad flashback about her grandfather, whom she hasn’t seen in seven years (she’s ten, maybe?); Zeke dealing with his alcoholism and sobriety; Riley, Zeke’s son, dealing with bullies at school and befriending a shady kid; a giant dog-faced larva thing that seems to be very friendly and saves Riley’s and Abby’s life from the giant mutated spaniel I showed above (the larval thing can fly and it seems not everyone can see it, although Riley and Jedidiah can); Andrea’s secret mission; the weird herb lady who, it turns out, helped Jedidiah develop the seed, may have been having an affair with him, and wins the mayoralty of the town in a huge upset; the weird herb lady’s dosing of Andrea with some kind of hallucinogenic; and all the odd people who are converging on Freetown at the end of the arc. There’s also the usual talk of Jedidiah messing with God’s plan, represented by Zeke’s godfather, a pastor in the town who used to be best friends with Jedidiah but broke with him when he started developing the seed. In other words, there’s a lot of plot, not all of it explained too much in the opening arc. The more realistic aspects of the book are handled well and make the fantastic elements work – Guillory never says that Zeke’s alcoholism contributed to his family issues or his present job problems, but it’s enough to hint at it and let us make the connections. Zeke doesn’t seem to know about the rumors of his father’s affair, but we can wonder if that’s what helped lead to his mother’s death. The signs outside Zeke’s house remind him of a time when he was young and other signs, with dead cats nailed to them and targeting his father, appeared outside his house, but his sister and father don’t want to hear about it. The pastor recalls a time when he and Jedidiah fought for social justice, and Guillory deftly and subtly introduces racial politics and economic strife into the story – Jedidiah is a successful black man in the South, Zeke’s kids are bi-racial, and some of the white men in town have been forced out of the farming business because of Jedidiah’s success, and there’s a tinge of racism in their anger. Despite the fantastic elements, there’s a lot of human drama in the book, which is why it works so well.
Guillory hasn’t changed his art style too much, which is another reason the book might remind people of Chew – his style is so distinctive that it’s easy to spot, so it makes the comics he works on “Rob Guillory comics,” which in my mind isn’t a bad thing at all. However, he has gotten better – his hatching and inking is better, so that he adds just enough to the characters’ faces to make his expressions work even better than they did on Chew, where they were pretty darned good to start with. His faces are still exaggerated and cartoony, but he uses just enough linework to keep that aspect of them while adding a wider range, which is important in a book like this, which so far isn’t as in-your-face as Chew was. Guillory has learned, over the years, how to use pages very well, so while in Chew he was interpreting someone else’s scripts and I don’t know how much leeway he had in designing pages, in Farmhand, he uses the space very well, as each issue feels packed with content. Obviously, there’s a lot going on in this comic (as I noted above), and Guillory has to fit it all, and he does so nicely. For instance, on the first page of issue #2, he uses a 4 x 4 grid to review Zeke’s life, and it’s not only designed well, but it gives us just enough information without being too expository. In issue #5, he uses a 3 x 6 grid across two pages and places talking heads in each as they answer questions about Andrea’s disappearance (after she’s doped by the weird herb lady), while below it he uses bigger panels to show where the police, Jedidiah, and Zeke are when they’re asking the questions. When he does open up a bit, he earns it – when Andrea gets dosed with hallucinogens, Guillory starts with smaller panels simply showing Andrea talking to the woman and drinking tea (which contains to hallucinogenic). Two pages later, the final panels is larger, as the woman appears to change because the drugs are starting to affect Andrea. Then, the page turn gives us a double-page spread with the woman coming too close to a visibly drugged Andrea and doing something to her (we’re not sure yet what it is). It’s a good build-up, and because Guillory kept things relatively claustrophobic leading up to it, its impact is heightened. Guillory does this a lot – his storytelling skills are such that he can use a lot of small panels and still get across the visual information he wants to, but he also knows when to go for a big impact panel or page. Wells has become a very good colorist, too, and the book is beautiful to look at partly because of the vibrancy of the palette. Ten years ago, using more rendering on Guillory’s art would have been awful, as we can see from mid-Naughts comics in which the penciller was kind of old-school, using thicker lines and a more solid look, and the heavily rendered digital stuff made it look terrible (back then, newer artists who colored straight from light pencils – skipping inks – worked better with that kind of coloring). Technology has come a long way, though, and Wells’s colors can still add layers of nuance without overwhelming the pencil art, and the depth they add to the faces and the shifting tones we get from differently lit scenes is very impressive. Guillory’s art still looks best when the colors are a bit flatter, but the technology now allows Wells to retain that old-school flatness to a degree yet still add plenty of subtlety. Guillory adds his characteristic humorous asides in the background, and his style means that some things are going to look humorous even if they’re not (Mikhail’s arm in issue #1 comes to mind), but he and Wells have grown as artists, so the serious parts of the book look the part. Plus, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the card stock they use for the book. It’s very thick and just feels heftier than your average comic, which is nice (I don’t know if the trade will be on the same stock and feel the same way, but the single issues have a nice heft to them), and it’s also impressive that we get, respectively, 32, 24, 24, 24, and 28 pages of story in each issue. That’s not bad at all.
The trade of Farmhand will be out on 16 January, and if you can still order it from your retailer, you should, or you can just get it at some shady on-line retailer (so shady!). It’s an impressive comic, not only because it’s the first time Guillory is writing something, but also because he is really ambitious with it, and so far he’s pulling it off (a lot of balls are still in the air, so who knows if that will continue). It’s creepy, funny, tragic, mysterious, and it’s a keen family drama. Plus, it looks great. What’s not to love?
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆