“The night stank of diesel and a stranger came to town, a cold wind blowing and the rain pouring down”
A few years ago I met Andres Salazar at the Rose City Comic Convention and I bought the first part of his three-part epic, Pariah, Missouri, from him. It turned out to be a pretty keen book, so I was glad that he finished the entire thing and published it this past year. He writes it, inks it, colors it, and letters it, and José Luis Pescador provides the pencil art. Salazar also published it himself, which was nice for him. So let’s take a look at it!
Pariah, Missouri takes place in … well, Pariah, Missouri (not too big a stretch there). Salazar writes in the afterword that he was inspired by Deadwood (which is not a bad thing at all to be inspired by) to create his own Western, but he wanted to change it up a bit, so he set it in the antebellum years, 1857 to be exact, and he moved a bit east to Missouri, which was the gateway to the larger West. He also wanted to create a kind of 19th-century A-Team, so he came up with four main protagonists who would help the people of the town by fighting the various evils that beset it – both supernatural and more mundane. There’s a grand tradition of “weird Westerns,” with various supernatural elements getting dropped into a prosaic Western setting, and Salazar continues that tradition quite well. Each chapter of the collected edition can stand on its own, to a degree – Salazar uses the same characters, but they deal with different things in each chapter, and while there are some continuing threads, they’re not that difficult to pick up on. Neither one is so much better or worse than the others, so it’s good to have them all together between two covers – you’re not getting a clunker that you could skip, in other words.
The main characters are a nice mix of Western stereotypes (although Salazar does a nice job with them to make them less so throughout the book). There’s Hiram Buchanan, a dissolute gambler; Eleanor Ruxby, whose father owned the hotel until he died and she was pushed out of the business by one of the unscrupulous town founders and who has worked as a prostitute and a school teacher, as those are the only professions for women in Westerns; Toro, the mysterious Comanche who has supernatural powers because he’s an Indian (he’s also half-Mexican, so that makes him even more exotic); and Jean Lafitte, a creole from New Orleans who bears no resemblance to the famous pirate. Salazar does some good work with these four tropes, as Buchanan, it turns out, is a Pinkerton who’s investigating events in Pariah (why he’s specifically in town is kind of vague; and yes, I did make sure the Pinkertons existed prior to the Civil War, because the agency really became famous afterward, but they were around in 1857), and they all have interesting secrets in their pasts. Salazar doesn’t need to do too much with the characters; this is an adventure story, so he just have to make sure they’re interesting enough to carry the brief interludes between the action, and he does. They all contribute their own particular talents to solving the problems that beset Pariah, with Hiram getting a bit more of the spotlight in the first story, Eleanor taking over more in the second, and Toro contributing the most to the third (Lafitte has plenty to do, but the little that we get about his history doesn’t take precedence, and I wonder if Salazar wanted to do one more story focusing on him). So while the characters are fine, they’re not great. But that’s okay.
Salazar has some good old fun plots to get to, and that’s what makes the book such a hoot to read. In the first story, we get two strangers coming to town – a slick dandy and an absolutely gorgeous young woman. They put on a puppet show, and to those people who think clowns are the creepiest thing around, I raise you with marionettes. Brrrr. The two are definitely not who they appear to be, and Hiram coaxes the other three into helping him take care of the interlopers. Meanwhile, there’s a bigger plot that runs through all three books – the marshal is missing, and an old friend shows up to find out what happened to him (the friend doesn’t turn out to be as important as it seems from the first book, but he does some nice work while he’s around), and the founding fathers of the town have formed a criminal consortium that controls everything in town. In the second story, we get a charismatic preacher who, naturally, isn’t what he appears to be, but he’s countered by a younger preacher who shows up in town and lives a much more Christian life, which has a strong influence on Eleanor. This is probably the strongest section of the book because Salazar focuses on more mundane things (despite the presence of supernatural elements) – the existence of slavery in the town, how a woman is forced to live in this society, and how religion can be such a powerful force in the lives of people. There’s plenty of violence, sure, but Salazar brings up uncomfortable realities, too. In the third book, cholera hits the town, but there’s also something lurking in the forest that Toro must confront that ties into his past. We also get more of the “secret origin” of the town (which began in the second chapter), which explains why so many weird things keep happening there. It’s also very violent, but there’s less of the social problems we encountered in the second section. The book also ends a bit ambiguously, not really on a cliffhanger, but just in a way that Salazar can return to the story if he chooses.
Salazar is ably assisted by Pescador, who does a phenomenal job on the artwork. First of all, he really makes Pariah look like an old Western town – the details on the buildings, the steamboats, and the surrounding forest are really terrific. His costuming is superb, too – there are a lot of characters in the book, from the main ones to the ones just wandering around, but Pescador dresses them impeccably, and in different outfits, as well, so he’s not simply redoing one over and over. He has a nice, angular style that adds a bit of creepiness to much of the proceedings, and in a town as weird as Pariah, the slightly strange characters make the story a bit more unsettling. But Pescador also draws stunning women, which works in his favor in the first story, when so much hinges on people being dazzled by the newcomer’s beauty. He’s also got a cartoony enough line that it makes the physical nature of the conflicts more interesting, as the characters often contort in slightly odd ways that don’t quite conform with reality, but because Pescador’s style isn’t totally “realistic,” it works. He does a nice job with the more supernatural aspects of the book, too, giving us some cool monsters, which are often crucial to stories like this. He does the clever thing where he changes panel shapes when the action starts, using triangles and quadrilaterals more than traditional rectangles, which helps squeeze and direct the action in certain ways, which raises the intensity. His characters are loose and flowing, which also helps in the action, and he has some great designs – not only the monsters, but the three Mexicans who come to town in the third chapter are beautifully drawn and downright spooky. Salazar’s colors are wonderful, as well. He obviously builds on an earth tone foundation because it’s the Old West, and everyone knows everything was sepia-shaded in the past, but he uses blues – a solid complement to the reddish range on the color wheel – really well, and while most colorists do this, Salazar really thinks about when to use it, as when Eleanor and Hiram are dressed in blue for their first conversation, helping them stand out among all the other well-dressed folk on the riverboat casino. Later, he uses blue and yellow to contrast the different views of religion that the two preachers have, which works quite well, and he begins to use more psychedelic colors in the third section, when we get a flashback to Pariah’s founding, which is mostly in brown except for some wonderful uses of bright colors, and when the group ends up in caves, where the light does some unusual things to the rocks. It’s a bright comic, certainly, because even the dark blues aren’t too dark, and Salazar knows how to use the palette for maximum effect.
I’m glad that Salazar was able to finish this – I liked the first part when I got it back in the day, and the entire thing is quite good, too. I don’t know what either dude is doing next, but I’ll have to pay attention to them, because they’re both good creators, and comics needs more good creators! The book isn’t on Amazon, but you can find it here, if you’re interested. I imagine you can find it elsewhere, too, but that’s up to you!
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆