Amidst the dry grasslands of Gristlewood Valley, a farmhouse looms ominous right from the opening pages of Steve Niles and Greg Ruth‘s Freaks of the Heartland, published by Dark Horse Comics. There are secrets here. Dark secrets. Inside this house resides a family, dominated by a cruel alcoholic. Capillaries broken in his nose and a bottle sits menacingly on the dinner table; this man’s presence weighs heavily on the atmosphere. Warned about being out too late, his son, Trevor, answers him with a defeated, “Yes sir,” while the wife covers her face with a hand and tries to avoid her husband’s gaze. There’s no telling what will set this man off. Why is he such a miserable bastard?
“You still got chores. Go feed yer brother.”
Now we have come to the crux of this matter. Taking a key that hangs from a nail, and making his way to the barn, readers are introduced to a chained-up brother named Will. Even though Will is Trevor’s “little brother,” he is much larger and deformed. His cranium is oversized. Trevor seems relatively unfazed, and it is revealed that though he is very sheltered–he has a good heart. This is his brother, and this is his reality. Will speaks of mental images that he has seen, until Trevor is abruptly called back into the house–but not before promising to come back later in the night.
After playtime in the moonlit fields, ending with more of Will’s visions, everything comes unhinged. Sneaking back into the house, Trevor’s dad is drunk and wielding a pistol. He is ready to fix nature’s mistake. There is no way such an abomination could have possibly come from him. Without giving too much away, eventually the situation escalates, and before long Will and Trevor are on the run. What dark secrets have been hidden by the people of this rural community? Could there possibly be more of these abominations locked away throughout the area? Just how far will these people go to prevent the truth from getting out?
Freaks of the Heartland was an interesting story. Throughout my reading of this collected work, I kept drawing mental comparisons to John Steinbeck’s classic novel, Of Mice and Men, but with a distinctly different feel and resolution. Another fair comparison would be to Steve Niles’ own new comic work in Frankenstien Alive, Alive. The lines become blurred about whom exactly is the real monsters. This was a very steady tale that succeeds without succumbing to cheap shock value or gore, and was clearly crafted with finesse and patience, and in turn is a rewarding read.
The art in Freaks of the Heartland is equally captivating. I don’t want to speculate on Greg Ruth’s actual process, but the art here looks inked, with watercolor painting washes and digital manipulation. Of course, these days it is entirely possible that he worked almost exclusively using digital techniques, but the art here looks like inks and watercolors. The color palette is very earth-toned and drab, but Ruth’s style is compelling nonetheless. At times he uses contrasts to great advantage. His style quickly grew on me, and the sheer volume of content (162 pages) is quite an endeavor for one artist to complete single-handedly. The extras include artist’s notes, concept drawings, and unused artwork. Ruth talks about his move a rural area as he started this work, and you can clearly see the country details filtered through his fresh eyes in a new environment.
I would definitely recommend checking out this beautiful hardback collection. I personally missed it the first time through in single issues, but I am quite happy that I rectified this oversight—you should as well. The Freaks of the Heartland hardcover is out today, and retails for $29.99 from Dark Hose Comics.