Having previously adapted L. Frank Baum’s Oz books into comics, as well as creating his own black comedy fantasy series for Image with I Hate Fairyland, Skottie Young is no stranger to the fantasy genre, let alone the fairy tale. His latest book Middlewest, in collaboration with artist Jorge Corona, is a mixture of midwestern America and outlandish fantasy, all of which tell a coming-of-age road tale about a young boy along with his talking fox, escaping from his home life of abuse and toxicity.
After escaping the clutches of his father, Dale, who happens to be a terrifying storm monster, it turns out the apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree — Abel has inherited his father’s supernatural nature, causing chaos towards the Havoc Fair at the start of this volume. Being exiled from their new family with the exception of Bobby, who is determined to help him, Abel and Fox are on their own again as they travel through the Middlewest to find Abel’s mother while he wrestles with what he considers his father’s curse.
Opening with Abel as an angry toddler arguing with his mother followed by his current situation of being a storm monster, Young is putting more emphasis on Abel’s complicated family dynamic, especially how the son can inherit from his father. In Abel’s case, it’s understandable — there is a sequence featuring Dale in a bar where he can’t keep a hold over his emotions and thus chaos ensues. With this recurring theme in a lot of fairy tales that are about the fear of adulthood, we delve deeper into the family history with the appearance of Abel’s grandfather, who may seem initially nurturing, only to reveal a sinister side that feels close to home.
As opposed to the previous volume where the story just wanders from one set-piece to the next, there is certainly an expansion in the world-building as we delve deeper into the fantasy, but the narrative now feels more fluid in the themes it’s exploring and how that informs our youthful hero. Despite being given directions to where to find the help he needs, Abel is more driven by his internal fear, causing himself to distance those around him. All of this leads to a heartbreaking moment where he and Fox have this ferocious argument that breaks up the pair. Although there isn’t enough of Bobby here to make her side of the story a compelling side, the central crux is now the impending reunion between the boy and his animal companion.
The best fairy tales should have a dark undercurrent where children go through a sense of danger, and Middlewest is no exception. This is a violent read with many panels where Jorge Corona is spurting out blood, which applies really well to the artist’s cartoonish character designs. Mixing the Midwest with fantasy/steampunk, the beautifully illustrated environments have both familiarity and unknown, such as Piper City being a dystopian highlight. A special shout-out to letterer Nate Piekos, who changes the style of lettering for particular characters, whether they’re robots or storm monsters whose words are in motion with their otherworldly actions.
This second volume of Middlewest is even better than the first — it not only expands on its world-building, but also on its dark themes that create an emotional journey for our characters.