Just to get this out of the way, right up front: I really liked Heathentown.
I’m not at all certain why Gabriel Hardman isn’t a comics-related household name. Possibly because he divides his time between comics and the movie industry — that’s the only reason I can think of that editors aren’t beating down his door, contracts in hand, begging for more comic books. As it stands, I was very pleased to read Heathentown, with art by Hardman, written by Corrina Sara Bechko.
On Bechko’s blog, The Frog Bag, Bechko describes herself thusly: “I’m a zoo keeper by day, crafter and writer by night. I share my home with four cats, a dog, two birds, a rabbit and a brilliant illustrator. I have a passion for conservation, tapirs, frogs, and beads. You can view my creations in my etsy shop where I sell hand crafted cat toys, jewelry, needle and bead work. Heathentown, my first foray into graphic novel writing, was published in early 2009.” This — the fact that Heathentown is her first graphic novel — explains why some of the comic world hasn’t heard of her.
Heathentown is a black-and-white graphic novel, published by Image. It’s a story of murder, dark magical forces, love, guilt, and desperation. It’s a story of adventure that happens to someone whose taste for adventure has been removed. It’s a story of love and death, and who can resist love or death?
Bechko and Hardman begin the tale be introducing us to Anna Romano, caught in the act of desecrating a grave in a small Florida Everglades town. Romano has returned to the States from her work — anthropology or public health was my guess, though the book doesn’t specify — in Chad. Her friend, Kit Durrel, was killed there. Anna has flown back for Kit’s funeral. Yet, as she tells her public defender, she couldn’t resign herself to Kit’s death. Her slightly drunken graveside wake reveals more than Anna had expected, leading her to discover the truth about the town, its relationship to the swamp, and the role of the Durrel family in the town’s mysterious disappearances.
Yes, I’m being coy. But you really want the pleasure of reading Heathentown, and finding out the answers yourself.
Part of the thrill of this story is Hardman’s art. The reveals, when they are revealed, are spectacularly rendered in dramatic panels that dominate the scene. But that doesn’t prevent him from paying careful attention to the smaller moments, such as the conversation between Anna and her public defender in the holding cell. Hardman draws people you can recognize, with their sweat-rumpled shirts, their awkward high heels, their hair that doesn’t stay put but falls in the sticky heat.
The rest of the joy of reading Heathentown comes from Bechko’s writing. Anna Romano is a character I truly enjoyed meeting, however briefly. Her nature is shown to us, not merely recited. We understand her grief, the mad determination that possesses her to do entirely ill-considered things. We can see the California grad student she must have been, before the deaths in Africa. And we can see that whatever the future holds for Anna Romano, she’s going to have a hell of a time letting go of the events of this story. I really want to see her, a year from the end of the book, trying to hold down an associate professorship in some community college when she’s suddenly contacted by Kit’s previously-unheard-from cousin, Lee, who asserts (with no evidence!) that there might be a way to reverse some of the events at the end of Heathentown. Just sayin’ — I’d buy that.
Don’t read this if you are looking for superheroes, happy endings, or comic books in color. Read Heathentown if you like crime stories, mysteries, stories about the old traditions of isolated small towns, stunning art, and well-written female leads.
Email: sigrid @ fantasticfangirls.org