For the past 14 issues of Middlewest, Skottie Young, Jorge Corona, Jean Francois-Beaulieu, and Nate Piekos have put Abel through a lot. He’s an innocent kid who’s been dealt a really bad hand. In the search for his mother and the cure to his father’s stormy temper, Abel’s had to face peril after peril, and has only been met with disappointment and frustration. Now, Abel finds himself as a worker bee in Nicholas Raider’s ethol farm and it’s easy to see that a lot of hope is lost, and that it’d be easy to give up. You take one look at the vast, natural landscape dotted with pink bulbs of ethol and realize that this system may be too big for even Abel to handle. We see perspectives that show the “floor managers” looking down on the workers, wide shots that show each work as a small cog in a big machine, and close-ups that reveal the default state of the workers as irritation.
What’s remarkable about the opening here is that Skottie Young is almost speaking to Midwesterners in code. He knows what it’s like. This scene masterfully captures the working environment at small to mid-sized manufacturing and agriculture companies present in every small town in the Midwest. Sure, not all companies work their employees like slaves, but I’m sure it feels like it to some of the machine workers pulling regular nine hour shifts. It’s difficult labor that requires a fairly high level of skill, but no one wants to do it. It’s boring, drab, and doing the same tasks over and over makes you feel trapped. Young, Corona, Francois-Beaulieu, and Piekos, they get it.
So that’s Abel right now, trapped within the panels of Midwestern industry… until crisis happens. Bobby stumbles and the area erupts in flames. The brilliant purple and pink hues that Francois-Beaulieu use here is some of the best color work on the entire series. It’s bright and eye-catching. You can almost feel the heat erupt from the pages, but at the same time, can’t help but watch the majestic color. The flames grab your attention and pull Abel out of his haze. While it would be easy to let his temper, worry, or anger get out of control, Abel composes himself and uses his head.
Once things calm down, Abel starts to get a lot of attention. As he and everyone else change out of their uniforms, Theo notices Abel’s scars. This leads to an important conversation about growing up and escaping cycles of toxic behaviors. The kids in Abel’s town didn’t really understand what he was going through. Most of them seemed to come from two parent households, and none really seemed to see Dale’s temper. At the ethol farms, however, everyone comes from a rough family situation. Once Theo notices Abel’s scars, he realizes he misjudged Abel. They both have been physically abused father figures in their lives, and Theo even realizes how the cycle of abuse has propagated to him. Theo’s cognizant of his own tendencies and where they come from, but also doesn’t appear to try and rectify it. Rather, he maintains an “it is what it is” sort of attitude. He understood when Abel almost lost control in the ethol fields and doesn’t stress about it. The benefit of having this discussion between children is that there’s no immediate desire to try and solve the situation. They know they can’t so they just have to accept that it sucks, which is something we all need to learn. There’s a curiosity towards why this abuse occurs, but they quickly understand that it’s like bamboo in that it won’t break easily, but can be bent. It only takes another kid to point out the most important lesson of all: in order to change, you have to want to change.
Corona does a great job making the entire scene feel a lot like Annie or Oliver Twist. There’s the false idealism of the rural community, the inspection of the role, impact, and damage parents can have on their children, and the importance of teamwork. We see children who have come from homes filled with abuse, addiction, and intolerance all come together in their new situation. Some don’t know what to do, others blame themselves, others shout “F*ck adults!” None of those are the answer in the long term, but it feels better knowing you’re not alone, and that’s what’s important. Piekos’s chant fits perfectly in the toast panel to end a very well-constructed scene.
Unfortunately, the conclusion is where things start to go downhill a bit. Balancing character moments and plot is very difficult, and I think it’s where Young struggles the most. It’s relatively evident here where we go from an extremely powerful scene about messed up parents and runaway children banding together to a manufactured setup for an escape scene next issue. It’s pretty evident that these more emotional beats are what Young really cares about, so the conversation with Raider at the end feels crammed in. What’s reassuring, however, is that Abel’s character is still being tested every issue, and even though it wavers, it always returns to a noble center, and you don’t see enough of that affirmation these days.
Middlewest #14 is an important revisiting of the cycle of abuse, but this time, Young, Corona, Francois-Beaulieu, and Piekos deliver something Abel didn’t have when he met his grandfather in issue #10: Hope.