“Redfork” digs deep into the coal-black heart of America and rips out its dark failings with screeching honesty, and damn fine craft. Warning: minor spoilers ahead.
Script: Alex Paknadel
Art: Nil Vendrell
Colors: Giulia Brusco
Letters: Ryan Ferrier
Publisher: TKO Studios
A Brit taking on the intricacy of decay of coal mining in a small, dying American town? Surely you jest. Well, you’d be deadass wrong.
“Redfork” is solidly in my top 3 horror books of the current zeitgeist at least, and not just because Paknadel understands how to spool out tension or Vendrell understands how to capture viscera so well. It’s because of the book’s audacity, and the team’s ability to stay the course.
When Paknadel is really on, there’s nothing quite like it in contemporary comics. There’s enough references for the academics among us to pore over and to add flavor if you’re into that kind of thing, yes, but there’s also an unerring drumbeat Paknadel follows in his most successful stories to a rock solid conclusion. We saw it in “Friendo” with the absolute commitment to the balls-out weird and grotesque, and we see the inverse here with the justice and surprising grace of “Redfork.” Paknadel creates a Vaudevillian horror in Gallowglass and gives Vendrell enough material to amp up the gristly, Cronenbergian gore to a very satisfying level. Paknadel’s dialogue largely dances on the page, though there are just a few moments in “Redfork” where it could cut a little finer. Still, the winding quality of it suits the locale and the everyday, dismal horror of Redfork even before Gallowglass decides to come calling. When everything’s in the shit, sometimes the only thing we can do is circle the pain and make it as pleasing to the ear as possible.
Vendrell’s style suits “Redfork” well. There’s enough realism in the backgrounds and meat of the town itself to ground us in a very grim present, but also enough cartooning in the character design and fleshiness in later events to make the visual horror earned. Noah’s an absolute boat of a dude – his bulk explained in an excellent four-strip flashback at the beginning of issue #3 – and the larger cast ranges from small-town prim to beer-bellied and gaunt-eyed. Harper’s glasses are a particularly fine detail. She’s not on the page much in the beginning, but the glasses and her careful ponytail are just the kinds of visual cues we need to understand who she is at a glance and, later, what’s at stake. Gallowglass’ design ranges from spectral underground threat to impeccably groomed mountain man depending on the issue, and his mood. Vendrell’s layouts are straight ahead when they need to be, and delightfully convoluted when we hit the mines. And the meatiness as the story progresses! Vendrell creates a thing of disgusting, pulsing beauty, made all the more vibrant by Brusco’s work.
Color matters deeply in “Redfork,” and the book wouldn’t succeed without Brusco’s efforts. From the faint circle of red haloing Cody’s face in the mine mirrored by the grotesque negative outline of his dead crew, to the unearthly glow of the snow coal and its Giger-esque source, Brusco’s attention to detail makes this book sing. Horror’s a difficult sell in comics because good horror requires pinpoint tension, and the comics page really can be taken in any way a reader chooses despite an artist or writer’s best efforts. The page turns matter, yes, but the flick of an eye to a bottom panel can ruin a scare or jump the gun on a critical emotional beat. Brusco helps us slow down and pay attention to what’s happening in the moment, often to the point of refusing to look ahead to savor the inky black tar or purple unreality of the underground when shit really starts to hit the fan in the story.
The first page is an absolute banger, too, with its homage to gelled lighting in genre film and jarring stoplight feel. Brusco doesn’t just excel in the extreme moments, however. The peek of sunlit autumn foliage at the beginning is a heartbreaker, as are the grim steel blue interiors of D-Ray’s truck as contrasted with Noah’s bright, almost dog-like hang out the window. Unity’s trailer is a grim mix of faded pinks and purples, and the flashback reveal of Gallowglass’ origins is a perfect hit of yellow and sepia. The gore jiggles and glistens with the right amount of red and, later, magenta unreality, and even the perfect creamy calm of Gallowglass’ sweater is spot on. There’s a single Predator-esque panel later that amuses and horrifies in its contrast, as well. Brusco and Vendrell work exceptionally well together in “Redfork,” and a story predicated on its visual punches trips along because of their efforts.
Ferrier chooses a left-leaning font with slashy Ss and upturned Es that’s readable and adds flavor without going too hokey or baroque for a horror comic. It’s easy to get carried away with the cragginess of it all sometimes, but there’s enough going on in the art that Ferrier keeps it sleek and simple without going clinical. Balloon placement on lots of dark or dim backgrounds can be difficult, but Ferrier does the job and adds a few nice sound effects, like the sharp “KRAK!” of a punch to the jaw or a couple garbled balloons that go a little haywire thanks to a little involuntary facial reconstruction.
Overall, “Redfork” takes its time and isn’t afraid to be vicious from the beginning. It’s also not afraid to say “fuck you” to viciousness and walk out of the fire, if we’re willing to get burnt in the ordeal. Paknadel, Vendrell, Brusco and Ferrier craft a story in which the villain and what sleeps beneath is just the predictable death knell of a fucked-up, rapacious existence. We can’t kill it because we can’t – or won’t – change how we live, but maybe we can endure if we realize the shit we’re in. “Redfork” is also worth a read for the most liberal and high-minded among us, because it’s a good reminder that the rural-urban divide is real and that while a reason might not be justification for bad behavior, it’s a reason nonetheless.
And if 2020 is any indication, that divide sure as hell isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. What other demons slumber in the depths of that void?
The Verdict: 9.5/10 – “Redfork” delights with measured horror, well-paced storytelling and excellent style.