“Things are only lost until they are found.”
A rural Midwestern fantasy. A boy learning to cope with his emotions. A community that isn’t sure if they can help. These are Middlewest’s main ingredients. It’s straightforward, full of youth, and intelligent when handling adult themes. Take one of Aesop’s fables, throw it into a world of magic, build a community around the idea, but focus most on a core coming-of-age story. It’s a fresh perspective and does wonders for Abel, a young boy who just wants to find his mom and learn to control his anger with a fox by his side.
Each issue in this series marks a new chapter of Abel’s epic quest. Middlewest may not have a physical road map like other fantasy adventure comics out there, but this is a story that exists in stages. What differentiates this from the other quests you may find on the shelves is its setting. There aren’t many epic journeys taking place in the rural Midwest. After all, when you think magic and adventure, southern Illinois doesn’t exactly spring to mind. There are very few stories set there in general, and Middlewest’s specialty is that untapped potential. You never know what you see as you travel the farmland and the countryside. A troll that lives under the bridge? Maybe. A mysterious traveling carnival? Of course! Possessed demon squirrels? Why not? Anything can happen, and that’s the beauty of it.
One of the keys to this book’s success is its careful and selected use of magical elements. Most fantasy books tend to have incredibly high stakes and contain new magical creatures or artifacts around every corner. Middlewest is quite different. Magic does not make this world, but rather is part of it. It’s the kind of world where you could live your whole life and only see a few instances of magic. It’s used in more subtle ways, such as a mysterious pink liquid which gives these town electricity. Certain characters have the ability to use and harness magic, but they are few and far between. Abel’s magical curse may be a core part of this story, but it’s really just a manifestation of deep-seated anger issues. Magic is used sparingly in order to give it more meaning and life whenever it appears. Most of the time, it feels like a fun, small-scale adventure with Abel and Fox. It’s only when the deeper emotions come out when the story goes right for the heart.
Skottie Young is really in his element when writing these characters, and Nate Piekos knows where to put the dialogue for the best readability and maximum impact. This is a team that believes in their story, and it’s easy to see why. It’s a premise and cast of characters that sucks you in from page one. Bright blue skies and wide open landscapes decorate most of the panels and it’s easy to think, “Yeah, this is nice.” They know how to balance the charm and the heavier beats. There is also a lot of subtle experimentation happening within the pages. Sometimes Nate Piekos will make very specific word balloons a different color, and it’s difficult to discern whether it’s for visibility or to highlight certain tone or effect. No matter the case, you can tell this team has locked into a groove and is comfortable with pushing themselves in small ways.
The rural Midwest continues to be brought to life by Jorge Corona and Jean Franciois-Beaulieu, who do a great job orchestrating three separate and distinct scenes via different panel layouts, color palettes, and perspectives. In the aftermath of Abel’s storm, we have a community coming together in his defense portrayed in the open farmland under bright blue skies, dusty brown clothes and bright green grass. Then, we brilliantly transition to an angry intervention in a local bar painted with dark browns and fiery oranges thanks to a fantastic transition sequence that uses rainfall across a series of horizontal panels. A similar series of horizontal panels also brings the issue to it’s third act, Abel and Fox wandering through a forest at night shrouded in dark blues, grays, and blacks.
The scenes flow together perfectly while also displaying three very separate journeys. Corona also make great use of angle and perspective in his layouts. When depicting a conversation, Corona uses close-ups to show characters from the perspective of the other person. When Magdalena is speaking to children, you view the children at a downward angle and Magdalena at an upward angle. This combined with a few distorted features heightens the mood even when two people are simply talking. Conversations are very powerful tools within Middlewest, as there are a lot of lessons to be imparted. Luckily, Corona makes sure that these conversations are not only entertaining, but transformative. There’s a standout fight sequence towards the end that depicts Dale in a bar fight using a myriad of styles and perspectives. It makes an ordinary bar fight into a cinematic, high-stakes boxing match that’s both entertaining and worrying to read.
Middlewest does continue to have one hurdle, and that is the inescapable feeling that it’s missing something. Every issue is an entertaining read, and every issue teaches us, the readers, something new about managing emotions, addressing anger, and familial relationships. At the same time, however, it never feels as though the characters in the story are absorbing any of those same lessons. Abel has been searching for his mother and answers for eight issues now, and it feels as though he is no closer to find either. Us readers are still learning valuable lessons along the way, but Abel doesn’t seem to have absorbed many of these same lessons. He has found a community of people that accepts him, and even that goes away. If the book could show a small sign of growth in Abel or Dale every once in a while just to let us know that they’re picking things up too, issues would feel a lot more satisfying. It’s a fantastic series with a lot of heart and phenomenal lessons to share, but it could still improve in developing its protagonist.
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