Boom’s Warlords of Appalachia is a four-issue mini set in a broken future where the “Affiliated States of America” have rebelled, started a religious civil war, and were then beaten into submission by the union. Our hero is Kade Mercer, a Kentucky man whose attempt at a peaceful life is upset by the contentious relations between his neighbors and the National Guardsmen serving the nation’s interest in his state. Written by Phillip Kennedy Johnson, with illustrations by Jonas Scharf, colors by Doug Garbark, and letters by Jim Campbell, Warlords is an anxiety-inducing thriller well-worth your attention. And it’s only two issues in, so you should have no trouble catching up!
A timely tale
Whatever you think of the outcome of the recent presidential election, I’m sure you’ll agree that the United States seems more divided than it has in quite some time. Warlords has likely been in the works for a year or more (I’m not privy to the timetable for developing a miniseries), but its tale of two Americas is as relevant today as it ever could be.
So who’s side should we be on? It’s easy to identify with Kade—he’s a family man, he tries to get along, and he’s our focal point. But then he seems to be outside of the wider conflict. Whether the citizens of Kentucky are right or wrong is a bit harder to decide. Left-leaning readers may be quicker to sympathize with the government, but its leaders here are portrayed as power-mad and sleazy, such that it is difficult to like them even if you agree with them. Some right-leaning readers will see themselves in the “God and guns” platform that drove the Affiliated States to rebel, or feel solidarity with the people of Kentucky when a government mouthpiece arrogantly describes them as “toothless illiterates.” And yet Kade himself suggests that his neighbors’ religious beliefs are a false hope, undermining the Affiliated’s primary reason for rebellion. What we end up with is a conflict in which both sides seem to have serious problems, either in ideology or action or both, and poor Kade Mercer and his family are caught up in the middle of it.
Characters we can believe in
While much of the backstory of the war comes in the form of a radio broadcast throughout the first issue, the tension of the two sides hinges on Johnson’s ability to craft believable dialogue and give us a window into what makes these characters tick. With the expostion covered in the voiceover, he doesn’t waste dialogue on what happened in the past, but gives us a number of meaningful interactions between key characters early on and throughout. Most importantly, the dialogue itself is believable—it reads very naturally, and having spent over a decade of my life in the South, it feels right. So often it seems like writers script dialogue with an eye toward conveying information, and then never bother to read it out loud to see how it lands on the ears; but in Warlords, Johnson seems to have given thorough attention to each line, ensuring that characters consistently sound as they ought to.
Scharf really helps sell it all, too. While his rendering of specific characters is sometimes inconsistent enough so as to make it difficult ro recognize the same character on different pages, his storytelling is right on the money. Expressions and posture say almost as much as the dialogue, and this is one of those books where you can get a lot of what’s going on without even looking at the word balloons.
A fertile wasteland
Scharf’s environments are also really well-done, whether it’s a war-demolished town or the green hills and flowing water above. Here, too, Garbark gets to show his worth. The pallette of the book is fairly bleak and washed out in general, which is appropriate. But as the sun sets, or Kade enters an old mine shaft and the light fades, Garbark and Scharf manage to create a greasier, less-defined look, like the color was smudged onto a black canvas. It’s an eerie effect that simultaneously makes the situation more peaceful and more mysterious. It’s hard to explain, but hopefully I’m making sense.
All-told, the artwork here is good storytelling, with an aesthetic that suits the subject matter at hand: rough, edgy, and drained of color and brightness. Warlords is fascinating, but it also feels like a study in hopelessness; even if Kade manages to rescue his family, the conflict threatening to boil over around them will surely make the quiet life an impossibility.
- You like stories about dystopian American futures.
- You don’t mind a story without hope, as long as it gives you something to think about.
If you need some distance from the political turmoil in America, then this might not be your bag. But if, like me, it helps you to clothe your problems in fiction—if it makes it easier for you to process what is happening out here—then you’ll find Warlords of Appalachia a timely aid. With plenty of action, tension, and character work, it’s a worthwhile read even if you’re outside the States. Excellent settings and visual storytelling provide a worthy interpretation of the script, yielding a book with as much to say between the balloons as in them.
That’s all for our look at Warlords of Appalachia. I hope you check it out, and that you let me know what you think in the comments. And as always, please let me know what non-Bat books you’re reading, or anything you’d like to see us cover here. Until next time, here’s a few more of our favorite things.
The story of Santa before he was Santa, Grant Morrison and Dan Mora’s Klaus is actually a pretty basic tale of the ascendance of the jolly old elf, though with more hacking, slashing, and underworld demons than you’re likely used to. The characters—even Klaus himself—are all fairly simplistic, and there isn’t a great deal of on-screen growth and development, but Klaus is nevertheless a fun take on the Santa mythos that would make a good yearly read, if only to thumb through Mora’s beautiful rendering of the snow-covered town of Grimsvig.
Mouse Guard (Boom)
Creating a fantasy world from scratch is difficult, to say the least. Go too far with the world-building and you run the risk of your story becoming esoteric and unreadable, while not going far enough can make the world feel small and run-of-the-mill.
With Mouse Guard, David Petersen walks that fine line perfectly, creating a world that feels lived-in without being unwelcoming to new readers. Debuting in 2006, the tales of Mouse Guard have been told over several miniseries, each typically focusing on a specific year and season or a historical legend. The idea is simple: anthropomorphic animals have their own society, and unfortunately that means they have war. The titular Guard were a group of some of the finest mouse warriors who valiantly battled oppressors in ages past, but now that it’s a time of relative peace they are appointed as escorts and patrolmen to keep the mouse country and its citizens safe from predators.
What makes the book so eminently readable is how confident Petersen’s writing is: he doesn’t bog down the narrative with strange sayings and phrases, or make unexplained references to past events just to make the world feel bigger. Instead, he tells simple tales of the mice and lets the lore develop at its own pace.
In fact, it’s almost shocking how involved and large his world feels when the narrative and dialogue is often spare. When characters speak, it’s because they have something to say; if they refer to some past event, it’s because it’s relevant to the situation at hand, not just thrown in as artifice. It’s hard to explain in words, but this is a small world that feels huge by simply going at its own pace. Petersen’s gorgeous visuals carry a lot of the narrative weight as well, with entire passages telling a clear story with scarcely a word spoken. With character designs that aren’t overly cute without being alarmingly realistic and some genuinely beautiful natural settings, this is a series that’s as great to look at as it is to read.To date, there have been three main volumes written and illustrated by Petersen (Fall 1152, Winter 1152, and The Black Axe), a collection of short stories by Petersen (Baldwin the Brave and Other Tales), and three anthology collections by various writers and artists (Legends of the Guard). It’s perfectly suitable for children, though perhaps a bit much for younger kids, yet has a phenomenal storytelling and visual style to appeal to anyone and everyone.
I’m a sucker for an interesting concept, so I’m an easy sell for a #1 with a compelling angle. Time will tell if Savage can keep my attention, but I’m genuinely intrigued by the setup in this first issue, even if its “fighting-couple-united-by-catastrophe” formula is very familiar—in part because I like them both, and in part because that formula is seldom interrupted by a tyrannosaur in other stories. Lewis Larosa’s artwork is excellent, and skillfully inked by Clayton Henry, and Brian Reber varies his colors well between the prologue and what follows, the finishes looking more washed out and ragged or more smooth and shiny when appropriate. I’m anxious to see how the present day story catches up with the prologue, so I’m looking forward to Savage #2 in a few weeks.
Superman Annual #1
This is, pound-for-pound, the best-looking book I laid eyes on this week. Jorge Jimenez has wowed us on Superman before, but his rendition of Swamp Thing is a sight to behold. The story deals with one of the hidden consequences of another universe’s Superman soujourning in this one, and while it’s a bit thick, the artwork helps to keep things moving. This is an usually high-quality annual.
Superman is great.
Swamp Thing? Also great.
Seeing these two meet in the newest Superman annual? It’s… pretty good.
Peter Tomasi and Patrick Gleason are always great. They’re one of my favorite creative teams these days, and I’ve even said they’ll go down as one of the great writer/artist duos when all is said and done. Their work on Superman has been absolutely fantastic, and while this story doesn’t reach their normal heights, it’s still enjoyable. It’s a relatively low-stakes affair, dealing with the inner turmoil of Superman and his place in the world rather than some external foe, and things don’t feel remarkably different after the issue is over. It’s interesting seeing Swamp Thing confront Superman about his anomalous nature, and there was definitely some room for some psychological back and forth. While there are shades of that, overall this just further cements what’s already been established over the past few months: the old Superman is now the Superman. Not a bad theme at all, just a repetitive one.
The true star is Jorge Jimenez, and man does this guy absolutely nail the visuals. Like I said, this is mostly a psychological conflict between Supes and Swamp Thing, but that just means there’s more room for some truly trippy scenes. Jimenez draws a striking Superman, and his Swamp Thing is appropriately earthy, weird, yet kind of regal just the same. He takes the above average script and elevates it to something truly memorable. If nothing else, this is a nice indicator of the dynamic Tomasi and Jimenez will have on Super Sons, and a fine enough story on its own.