First time around, the languid shuffle with which Harrow County moves into its story seems surprising. After all, the tale contained in this first volume is neither complicated nor original. A rural community burns the local baby-eating witch, who promises she will be reborn to extract her revenge. Eighteen years later, teenage Emmy approaches adulthood, and everyone’s worried she’s a ticking time-bomb of unhinged Satanic vengeance. That’s not a complex set-up, and Bunn shows no hurry in unpacking it. In an era in which comics are finally starting to kick back against two decades of decompression, this thing positively dawdles.
But a refusal to hurry is part of the point. This is a story that lies in the intersection of children’s books and a nineteenth century ghost story, both of which are evoked perfectly by Crook’s gorgeous watercolour splashes of light and shadow. The result meanders like the unhurried narrative of a story for a child, but also apes the atmospheric build of the Americana ghost stories it’s paying homage to. It is near impossible, surely, to avoid being either slightly charmed or slightly creeped out by the end of issue one, which concludes with Emmy befriending the empty skin of a young boy, which apparently needs no eardrums to hear nor tongue to talk. It’s Huckleberry Finn meets Stephen King.
The twist is that the protagonist refuses to belong to either. With her eighteenth birthday’s arrival she has no intention of being trapped in a narrative for a kid any longer, but nor does she respond remotely like how a young woman is supposed to when haints show up. There’s no screaming or fainting. No burly male farmhands arrive at the last minute to save her. She runs on occasion, but only when it is prudent. Otherwise, she’s simply a young woman who accepts some spirits as allies, and shouts at others as irritants, depending on circumstance. This is crucial, because it helps to push back against what otherwise might seem a major issue with Harrow County as a whole.
Let me be absolutely clear. Stories about whether someone will overcome the darkness they were born with are utterly unacceptable, politically speaking. The idea that people are born with some inherent curse or evil within them is a despicable one. It has been used time and again in the real world to oppress actual people. “Oh, he’s one of the good ones” has been a favourite backhanded compliment of racists for a very long time. So it’s important Harrow County takes the line Emmy is clearly in the right when she claims the right to choose for herself what kind of person she will be, and that the suspicious inhabitants of Harrow itself are obviously wrong to have doubted her. Her insistence on taking the undead inhabitants of the local woods as she finds them suggests it will, offering encouraging evidence that the story is interested in something other than whether she’ll go the full Dark Willow. Indeed, if we’re very lucky, we might get a tale of a young woman who escapes a fate forced upon her not by a witch’s curse, but by gender, history, and society. That’s something I could really get behind.
So there is much to love here (including a very impressive collection of bonus material), and plenty of potential besides. But there are problems, too. Understanding why a train is running late doesn’t make it show up any faster, and these issues ramble a little too much as a single volume; as monthly installments they must murder the patience. There’s also the fact that whilst rejecting the idea that Emmy might turn evil is the right move to make in terms of subtext, the result leaves us with a defiant heroine but no sense of danger. The poor fools that set themselves against her are utterly out of her league, so where does the next threat come from? Unless it comes from within her, of course, but that brings us back into problematic territory again.
Admittedly, that last concern is hypothetical. There are pitfalls the book might fall into, but they could just as easily be avoided. And certainly there are ideas introduced in the final issue in this volume – most particularly the final page – that suggests there might be strong material down the road; a road that will lead us out of Harrow County altogether.
I’m just worried about how long it will take to get there.
Title: Harrow County
Publisher: Dark Horse
Reviewer: Ric Crossman