Freaks of the Heartland #4, July 2004, Dark Horse Comics
writer: Steve Niles
artist: Greg Ruth
If you saw a comic book called Freaks of the Heartland, written by acclaimed 30 Days of Night scribe Steve Niles, wouldn’t you think you were in for a horrific read? Picture the cover: a silhouetted boy, standing against a watercolor sepia tone backdrop, holding a plump, one-eyed rag doll. Needless to say, when I settled down with this issue, I kept the lights on.
For naught. Although this is the fourth issue, this story stands alone as a charming tale of a boy and his deformed brother, running away from home through the grasslands of rural America. Will appears gray-skinned with a prominent under-bite and an abnormally large brow. His speech is simple and possibly slurred, but the connection he shares with his brother, Trevor, is remarkable. “Have I ever asked you ta do something that was bad?” Trevor asks Will when he offers some grubs for sustenance on their journey. Trevor isn’t an obligatory guide; he isn’t running away because of or for his brother, but with him. At the end of this installment, Trevor and Will discover a small burial site, where five rag dolls and two baby skeletons that share Will’s features are unearthed. Trevor figures that his parents lied to him years ago, and that they couldn’t kill all of Will’s brethren. So, the boys vow to find the lost freaks, giving their journey a newfound mission. “We’ll find ‘em,” Trevor proclaims, “and then we’ll all get out of this place.”
Yes, Freaks of the Heartland was a pleasant surprise. The issue was elegantly written, but more notably, stunningly illustrated. Greg Ruth handled the penciling, inking, and coloring responsibilities, so it is evident that he had a vision for this title’s tone from conception to completion. In some panels, the soft, earthen hues overwhelm the line work, establishing the air of a rural atmosphere, and in others, the characters’ features are so finely detailed, I wonder if he used models or photo references to enhance his understanding of a child’s emotional transparency. I just now realize that we the readers are only privy to two characters throughout this story, but the artist uses the background to his advantage as if it becomes an entity itself, and their toil through the farmlands seems less static and repetitive than I’m sure it would really be. You see grass flowing. Sense clouds overhead. It’s an interactively moody experience.
So much for chalking another comic up to my Halloween-themed reviews roster. No, I take that back. Freaks of the Heartland may not have been a harrowing tale, but it speaks to the Halloween tradition, and accredits comics to a genre of literature it often yet ironically forsakes: young adult fiction. What is Halloween if it isn’t kids bonding behind grotesque masks over something as innocent as a love for candy? And what happened to the days when a comic book could depict a child as an emotive little human being, rather than some cartoon or plot device? “Young comics” are usually silly, and kids in comics are usually story fodder, but for perhaps the first time, Niles and Ruth have revealed a tender side to the medium, a paternal side, if you will. I feel for these kids. Now, that’s freaky.