By Donny Cates, Geoff Shaw, Jason Wordie, and John J. Hill
Once upon a time in West Texas, there was a man. Now, this man had a wife and a daughter, but he also had a father. That’s where the trouble started. This trouble may come in the form of the ethereal, but the real meat of it, the real heart of this tale, well, that takes place down in the grit. You see, this man’s father may be a god, but the driving force beyond it all is as human as it gets. The bonds that bend and the tolls they take. That’s what family’s all about, or so they say. Couple of fellas by the name of Cates, Shaw, Wordie, and Hill are writing a new American mythology in the pages of God Country and the first issue, hoo boy, it’s a ferocious debut that’s about sticking together through the adversity life throws at us. Sometimes in the form of vengeful gods.
Utilizing a genuine voice and tapping into the oral traditions of folklore, Cates frames the issue (and the series as a whole, really) with captions of a charming, folksy omniscient narrator. Think Sam Elliott. This is a good thing. It sets the tone of timelessness and strengthens the familiarity of the familial experience that unfolds while injecting the tall tale spine that props it all together. What may be surprising to some is just how content Cates is to slow the pace and ground the issue in the tribulations of the Quinlan family. Dedicating eight pages to properly introducing the dynamics of their relationship and latest challenge, Cates largely throws aside exposition in favor of terse dialogue that paints the setting and the players.
Roy Quinlan’s called out to his father’s home by the local sheriff after his old man had another episode brought on by his Alzehiemer’s. It was bad this time; guns were drawn, jaws were broken. Something needs to change which means they have to change. One particularly hard to watch scene with his father, Emmett, and his young daughter, Deena, sets the tone with the force of a jackhammer. Roy’s in a tough spot. His father is ill and only getting worse, but that don’t make him not his daddy, even if his wife, daughter, the sheriff, and the whole danged town knows something’s gotta give. With all that emotional heft hanging, Cates kicks the story into a higher gear and with some sweet narrative twang things get old testament right quick with some natural disasters and otherworldly wrath.
The balancing act is a tall order; switching from the hardened rural aesthetic to the mythological majesty while trying to keep the thread of relatable humanity throughout. The second half of the issue moves just the slightest bit too fast causing a whiplash (that very well could have been intentional) with the appearance of something demonic.The dearth of dialogue in the second half serves the script well, but the contrast to the opening is distinct. It all works to better hit the big moment with maximum “wow” and set the stage for the limitless realm of possibility that will spin out of this twister, though. There’s a lot promised here, even if not everything gets equal development, like Janey, Roy’s wife, for instance. It’s only the first issue, so there’s plenty of land left to wander as it progresses. Cates ensures we understand the tone, the challenges, and the characters without spelling it all out and allowing the art to deliver the wonder and grime in this new lore.
Geoff Shaw let’s you know that he likes to play in the dirt. Loaded with ink spatter and scathing, scratchy lines, Shaw’s pages are loaded with gritty texture in a manner that reflects the down home ruggedness of the setting. Barren, caked Earth plains are simultaneously pastoral and desolate. Flecks of ink atop faces, clothing, pickups, and old homesteads convey the worn and ragged existence and thematically hint at the emotional tolls that’ve been taken. Shaw lets it rip with the big crescendos of destruction, with loose, flying swirling lines intermingle with debris and celestial battle. As great as all the chaotic frenzy is, Shaw really impresses with those smaller moments that bolster Cate’s words. With a knack for adding all sorts of hardened, tested weight to facial expressions, the anguish and tried hopelessness come across beautifully with the heft of “why can’t this world cut us a break” being written all over the Quinlan family.
The continuity of pacing via Shaw’s transitions and page layouts helps even out the sense of acceleration as you progress from the more mundane to the bonkers, Kirby-level astral action, but he deftly injects a level of intensity early on (a close up of a maddened Emmett’s eyes is particularly chilling) and knows when to let the book breathe. Every exhalation of a wandering, singing nomad or an introspective Roy with a heavy heart is followed with an inhalation of awe in the form of a massive twister, or demon, or manic sense of danger. There are some panels, notably when the focus needs to be on the foreground characters and the ambiance set by the colorist, that lack background detail that alternate between making the characters feel intentionally lost in the mist of obvious destruction and just plain floating in nothingness to their detriment. Shaw’s very impressive overall, with a grandeur of grit and a frenetic ferocity. His line art ensures that we’re fully grounded, but can mosey into impossible wonder at any moment.
Jason Wordie’s colors run the gamut from ashen warmth, to spectral cools, and closing with a chromatic composite of the two that instills a heightened plane of being. West Texas feels drie in the daylight, but slowly gives way to a deluge of emotional and natural unrest in the ominous darkening of the sky and setting that Wordie establishes. He mixes in subtle hues to enhance the changing moods, like the blood orange light upstairs at an increasingly rabid Emmett’s home that appears under his eyes a few panels later, or the sickly green glow of the town at night harkens the coming twister and alights a pack of wolves. There’s some great contrasts to be found along the way (the sienna weeds and storm sky, for instance) that really culminate with an overlaid panel of Roy basked in dirtied pinks atop the full page splash of a swirling supernatural bath of destructive cools that give way to a serene amalgam of pastel skies. The added texture to the already well-textured art works great and really hammers home most of the thematic backbone to the unfolding craziness.
The lettering is well balanced from John J. Hill (who also sharply designed the book) with unobtrusive placements and some fun sprinkling of design elements like ghostly balloon shapes and musical note framing. Hill gels it all together with a mix of sound effect composition and a nicely understated slanted font to the narrative captions that keeps things running smoothly and the eye directed in synch with the action on the page.
God Country #1 is a surprise. Not so much for its quality, but for the focus on family and all the challenges that come with it. Image has been touting the series as Southern Bastards meets American Gods, and while that’s certainly apt, the first issue’s choice to wade in the dirtier end of the pool as opposed to science fiction theatrics (though there’s some rewarding venturing there too) adds gravitas to the mythological. It’s about a god wandering the American plains, sure, but it’s largely about second chances and fighting to keep the world from crushing down on you. Cates, Shaw, Wordie, and Hill? Them boys got something special on their hands here. There’s lots of ways this can go from here and what they choose to play close to the vest in terms of plot is pleasantly belied by the amount of emotional turmoil roused by what’s underneath it all. Family, hard choices, second chances, letting go, and a grounded new folklore: well, you can’t beat that with a stick, I’ll tell you what.
God Country #1 will be released January 11th, 2017 from Image Comics