Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Review time! with ‘The Down River People’

“Pay no mind to the battles you’ve won, it’ll take a lot more than rage and muscle, open your heart and hands, my son”

Adam Smith and Matthew Fox did a comic together which wasn’t bad but wasn’t great, but I guess they liked doing that one, because here’s another one! The Down River People, which is published by Archaia (which is now part of Boom! Studios), is their newest one, and it’s better than their first one, which I guess is the goal. Mike Fiorentino letters this, which is good because we wouldn’t be able to read it if he hadn’t!

We begin at a funeral, as a young man named Myers (yes, we’re going to have to live with that name) is mourning his father and tending bar, which sounds depressing but it’s because his dad owned it and now he does. His dad seemed like a good dude, and Myers is trying to live up to his legacy. That becomes harder when he tries to get alcohol. He lives in either Louisiana, Arkansas, or Alabama, because he crosses a river to get into Mississippi and buy liquor because he lives in a dry county (let’s try to wrap our minds around the fact that there still exist dry fucking counties in the 21st century). As he’s heading back, the cops – who had an arrangement with his father – stop him and break most of his bottles because they don’t have the same arrangement with him. He doesn’t know what he’s going to do, but then his mother shows up. She left him and his father years before, and Myers wants nothing to do with her, but she’s trying to make amends. She’s remarried, and she invites him to the church she and her husband own. He goes, meets the man, meets his half-sister, and everything seems kosher. Of course we know it’s not, but it seems kosher!

I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, because while it’s not the most original thing in the world, it does contain some unusual moments that are interesting to discover. I will say that Smith makes this about family and what that means, so the plot is just something to drive that theme, as plots tend to do. I won’t say the plot doesn’t matter, because it does, but plots often don’t matter as much as we think they do, because it’s what the writer is trying to do with the plot that matters. Myers has lost his family at the beginning, and it doesn’t help that everyone loved his dad, because he feels like he has to live up to that. But his dad committed suicide, so there’s the matter of what his dad was really like and what demons haunted him (in a telling exchange, a woman tells Myers early on that his dad’s in hell). His mother left them, and when she returns, she says the church has made her whole, something that Myers is now actively looking for but, it turns out, has been looking for his entire life, or at least since his mom fractured the family. Myers bonds with his family – mostly his half-sister – because he’s lonely, but as we know, people can take that loneliness and exploit it, even (or maybe particularly) in the guise of being a family. Smith does a pretty good job at exploring things we already should know – blood ties don’t necessarily make a family; you need to choose your own family, and it might not be the people you’re related to; convincing people of that is difficult; family can put pressure on you in ways you don’t want – but without being too obvious about it, and when it is obvious, it’s because of the machinations of the plot, which is why the plot works in the context of the themes he’s exploring. Smith also manages to highlight the “smallness” of small-town America – not necessarily its backwardness, because he’s not mocking the people in the book, but the way everyone eventually becomes connected somehow, and how hard it is to break free of those bonds, which might be as strong and ubiquitous as family ones. As the plot gets more bizarre, Smith does a good job keeping those themes in mind, so that the weirdness of the plot never eclipses what he’s really writing about. Smith does a nifty thing, by showing how growing up sometimes means defying your family, and while for most of us that’s not terribly dramatic, he manages to stir that into his plot, which does get a bit weird at the end. It’s a neat trick.

Fox has a good, solid line and an excellent sense of the landscape, which grounds the book very well before it gets odd. There’s a good sense of the isolation of the people, who cling to each other because they don’t have much else to do. Fox gives us a warm space – the bar – and a cooler space – the church – almost solely through colors, because both are crowded with people. He gives the bar a life, with warm colors and a riot of people, while the church is blue and green and the people more sedate. Of course, that’s not surprising for a church, but it’s a nice implication of where Myers can find people who are more caring and simply more alive. He uses a lot of blues and greens throughout, as these are common nature colors and he wants to give us a sense of the vastness of the world around the people as they carve out tiny pockets of civilization. Because his line is so solid early on, when things start getting weird, he starts blurring the lines and smearing his colors more, so that it appears as if the real world is dissolving just a bit, which it kind of is. He starts using some hotter colors among the blues, and these contrast nicely with the kinder colors of the bar, as they are far more lurid and angry, which fits the tone of the book at the end. It’s a nice-looking comic, and Fox’s art complements Smith’s story very well.

The Down River People is a nifty comic. Smith gives us an odd plot, one that doesn’t work perfectly, but which is interesting to read about as he gets to his real themes. The characters are interesting because they’re not stereotypes, just people doing their thing, so when things do get weird, it’s not out of character for any of them, even if odd things are afoot. It looks good, it reads well, and it makes you think. That ain’t bad!

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆

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