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Bloody Chester is by JT Petty and Hilary Florido, with colors by First Second‘s resident colorist Hilary Sycamore. Is this the first graphic novel in history with two people named Hilary working on it? The mind boggles! (There’s a Saint Hilary, by the way, and he was a dude. Sometime in the past 1700 years Hilary became primarily a female name – I wonder when?) This costs $18.99, which is a bit steep, I admit, but First Second does put out some very nice-looking comics – they’re constructed very well, I mean – so it’s not like the 19 dollars just goes into some shady executive’s pocket!
First of all, the reason I don’t like the name of the book is because, strangely enough, it sounds like the place where the book occurs is called Chester. I don’t know if that’s from me growing up in an area near an actual city named Chester, but it sounds like a place: “We’re fixin’ to head on over to Bloody Chester and kill us some whores.” The book is actually about a person named Chester who got the nickname “Bloody,” but his name seems like a misnomer (and is, in fact, based on a misconception), so perhaps it’s supposed to be ironic (in fact, I imagine it is, but I can’t be sure). I don’t know – I’m just ruminating. It just seems like a misleading title.
So what’s the book about? Well, Chester is a teenager who hangs out in the town of Averill (the book is set in the Old West), where he doesn’t seem to do much. His last name is “Kates,” so the locals call him “Lady Kate” and tend to beat the shit out of him. The railroad is going through Averill on its way west, and the railroad tycoon, Crog(h)an (it’s spelled both ways in the book, which is kind of annoying), hires Chester to go to the next town over, a place called Whale, and burn it down. Croghan tells Chester it’s because his workers (all non-white, and Croghan describes them in less-than-pleasant terms) are superstitious, and they believe Whale is cursed. According to Croghan, all the residents have fled, so it should be an easy job. Of course, when Chester gets there, he doesn’t find it quite so easy. It turns out that there are still four people in the town, none of whom want to leave. What’s Chester to do?
Petty pulls off an interesting trick, as this is a post-apocalyptic story set in the Old West. Chester discovers that a plague has struck the town, killing off most of the residents, and one of the people remaining is also dying of it. That man is the town’s priest, and his adopted son, Potter, is still with him. The third resident is a young lady, Caroline, whose father is a miner who refuses to leave his mine. Caroline thinks it’s for one reason, Chester thinks it’s for another reason, but it’s not until the end that Chester discovers the actual reason. Chester, of course, has a job to do, and he needs to get these people out of town. His efforts form the crux of the book.
Bloody Chester is a creepy comic even though Petty doesn’t show too much horrific stuff. The idea of a plague that festers in a person’s stomach before eating them from the inside out is creepy enough, but Petty keeps implying that just by showing up in the town, Chester has contracted the disease. Meanwhile, Chester is sweet on Caroline, and she eventually returns his affections, but she still doesn’t want him to interfere with her father. Chester believes that Caroline’s father has found gold, which is why he refuses to leave, so he gets Potter to lead him into the mine by a back way so he can confront the old man (who shoots at anyone who comes near the mouth of the cave in which he’s holed up). And, of course, we find out why Chester is having such a tough time back in Averill.
I don’t want to give anything away about the plague or the ghosts that seem to haunt the town, but Petty does a very nice job creating a psychological horror story. The book is about the power of faith and how it tests people and what it can do to people, as each character in Whale believes something fiercely and is even willing to die for it. Chester arrives and tries to cut through the faith to get the truth, but he fails to understand what taking a person’s belief away from them can do to them. It’s fascinating how Petty unspools the story, because we get to see why Chester is as hard as he is but also desperate not to be (he’s still only a kid, after all, and not as hardened as he might be if he were older). He can’t explain his actions to the people around him any more than they can explain their actions, because they’re separated by faith. It’s an interesting conundrum, and Petty does a fine job suggesting it all without being too explicit about it.
I don’t have a lot to say about Florido’s artwork. It’s functional and doesn’t get in the way. It’s slightly manga-influenced, and she does a nice job with the characters’ faces and the scenery, and less of one with some of the action. Petty trusts her to tell the story in some places, and she does a decent job with it. Sycamore is a good colorist, so the book looks perfectly fine, but the art isn’t going to sell the story in any way. But, like I noted, it certainly doesn’t hurt the story either. You will notice, though, that the lettering isn’t too great. No letterer is credited, and I don’t know if Petty or Florido lettered the book (or someone else entirely), but the word balloons are far too large, perhaps because the font used is too large, although there’s a lot of white space in the word balloons that has nothing to do with the font size. It’s not too bad when the panels are larger, but you’ll note in the scene to the left, the word balloons almost crowd out the drawings entirely in some panels. It’s too bad. Lettering: The under-appreciated aspect of comics!
This is a pretty keen graphic novel. It’s not what you might expect from a story of the Old West, and Petty does a nice job giving the characters some good layers without forcing it on them. The events in the book are slightly chilling, but they follow a logical plot line and it’s nice that Chester peels back the layers of mystery in Whale along with us, so that he’s never in possession of more knowledge about what’s going on than we are. It’s always nice to see different kinds of Westerns, and Bloody Chester is one of those. I can cheerfully Recommend it, even though it’s not necessarily a cheerful comic!
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