Nothing exists in a vacuum. Much the same way Redfork, a narratively and visually stunning trade from TKO Presents’ third wave of releases wouldn’t exist without writer Alex Paknadel, artist Nil Vendrell, colorist Giulia Brusco, and letterer Ryan Ferrier’s collaborative efforts, nor would its fictional setting of the immediately and existentially endangered Appalachian setting of Redfork, West Virginia exist without a highly specific set of real-world corroboratory sociopolitical boons and burdens that inform its loving community…and its monsters.
Following the story of ex-convict Noah McGlade returning to Redfork to combat the sociopolitical and interpersonal problems facing his family and community, as much as he eventually is to combat fleshy abominations rising from its open, depleted mine shafts like wounds in the earth, Redfork is a combination of intellectually stimulating narrative beats and immediately horrifying brutality that demands your attention. On a general scale, through alcoholism and opioid addiction, as well as societal and political disenfranchisement as Redfork struggles with corporate robber barons mining its people and land to exhaustion, Paknadel introduces a cast of characters — including the central antagonist Gallowglass — that are indeed burdened, but not unlovable even as some of them slowly descend into literal barbarism and cannibalism – a new type of empathy-driven horror storytelling with few peers.
Noah is, for example, an exceptionally conflicted, unique and interesting protagonist. An ex-convict who is not without his own problems — be they addiction, a proclivity for violence, or even an undue sense of servitude to those that would, and have, turn their back on him without a second thought — he is nevertheless heroic in his empathy, his strength, and his dedication to his family and community. He’s also strictly indicative of what makes so much of Paknadel’s writing work here. By avoiding needlessly structuring him as a character who is “clean”, nonviolent or otherwise without reproach as most protagonists would be, Paknadel depicts Noah as a man seeking redemption through understanding — something that is recognizable, more narrowly realistic, and appreciable without pause, and one that serves as a cipher for the community he represents at large. This includes the secondary antagonist Ms. Paisley, who serves as both a figurehead for the rampant corporatism robbing and destroying rural America (there are scabs in them mines, recalling the etymological roots of ‘Redneck’), as well as a kind of recognition of the reliance that those same corporations consciously or subconsciously have on company towns.
Equally replete in moral grayness and Lovecraftian horror as it is in humor and deeply engaging emotional empathy, there’s a mine-like depth to Redfork’s beats that is near unmatched in comics storytelling today. This is true, too, of the book’s strict narrative structure. Taking place over six interconnected, but time lapsed chapters, the slow descent into and revelation of more and more seemingly insurmountable nightmares cloying at the town of Redfork’s periphery and underbelly tells a digestible, taut, and demanding story that readers will feel engaged by.
Whether it’s because Paknadel invites you to piece together the scenes happening between chapters, or because there is a tangible depth to metaphorical markers such as the protagonist’s very name, Gallowglass, being both a reference to the Irish class of foreign mercenaries (the thing he’s working on behalf of his much bigger and inexplicable than any of us) as much as it is the idea of riches snatched from the jaws of death — gallows glass — the story has both immediate and mineable riches itself that can only be appreciated through absorbing it on a deeper level than most comic narratives require and I was deeply satisfied by them. There is explicit intention and richness to the idea of corporations that rob and abuse disaffected communities being represented by literal mines that is not lost or misused here, nor are signifiers of faith and the charlatans they can house.
Vendrell and Brusco, too, do the work to bring the fictional Redfork and the shadows threatening it to life like few artistic teams would be able to. From wide, beautiful, and naturalistic vistas to dimly lit, damp, and cramped mines housing ungodly horrors, the visuals here strike a balance that mirrors the narrative’s efforts in a satisfying way. Noah is a striking, imposing, and bulky figure, but he is also soft and emotive — rendered frequently with tears in his eyes and an emotional complexity that befits his circumstances. Simultaneously, Gallowglass is a kindly, suave representative of faux southern hospitality that eventually melts away to reveal the tar-like darkness beneath – one scene featuring him hunched over the shoulders of Noah’s brother is especially striking.
It is unfortunate that the lettering in many sections would benefit from a second pass as it is organized unnaturally or misleadingly, but the intermingling of flesh and stone, of God and artifice, the suggestion that our bodies have goals and needs separated from our consciousness, is here, immediately recognizable, and rewarding. I will not soon forget the night sermon aping the acts and pageantry of a roadside minister but obfuscating something much, much more horrifying.
However, and with sadness, it must also be said that Redfork fails to recognize or successfully engage with some of the specific and real-world elements it tries to incorporate. Most apparently, and importantly given the real analogs, the narrative is entirely missing a recognition or depiction of the political elements informing Appalachia’s specific struggles. Yes, the story looks with care at its subjects and successfully navigates away from feeling voyeuristic or indicative of a widespread liberal elitism that informs depictions of rural America and its people, but it also lacks contextualization. By narrowing the narrative down to a struggle between locals, a sense of scale is lost. It’s not just the marginally represented corporation (which, disappointingly is somewhat redeemed here) that has failed Appalachia. Both Republican and Democratic representation has overlooked the region as much as it has misapplied band-aid solutions that fix immediate problems but deepen longer-lasting and existential ones such as the interplay between sickness and health awareness and the flood of opioids into communities still happening today. That specific element, or an exploration of the external factors affecting real communities, is notably missing despite inclinations such as the opening page balancing coal mining and drug use suggesting it.
This is true, too, for the eventual unredeemable nature of the antagonist who represents a kind of revenge-fueled hatred for the outside world that I do not find many people living, nor struggling, in rural communities and specifically, company towns share — there is room for exaggeration, of course, and the defeat of said ideology is earned, but I’m not sure it’s representative of a real conflict, and it makes the eventual climax seem more lacking in complexity than the rest of the work. Redfork opts for a globally inclusive and recognizable story, and succeeds in that as well as in crafting deeply relatable characters and satisfying narrative beats, but misses the significance of the regionally specific markers that it touches on in ways that other parallel works, such as Old Gods of Appalachia written by and starring a cast of creators from the region do not, and I was acutely aware of the difference as someone born and raised in the Pacific Northwest, a region whose own struggles are often misrepresented.
Ultimately, and from broadly reaching but deeply personal depictions of addiction and unrepentantly Kafkaesque corporatism to more immediately dreadful depictions of cryptic Lovecraftian dread, Redfork is a book that attempts to take the real world hurt and personal and globalized trauma that is affecting Appalachian communities in real-time and make it digestible through a layer of metaphor and literalism that succeeds in interesting, stimulating ways, unlike few other things I have read this year. However, it also stumbles into moral and depictional quandaries it is not prepared nor equipped to handle for the same reasons. I am glad I read it, if only to engage with my own emotions and prejudices about rural America, and because of the sheer beauty of its narrative structure and artistic efforts, but I would also not blame those who cannot stomach its well-intentioned, but lacking depictions of real-world hurt.
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