Cullen Bunn really likes half-heard whispers. I mean, Harrow County itself is a half-heard whisper, if only because Bunn is making sure the other half of the whispers are completely inaudible. The reader goes into the story with more information than the protagonist, but neither has enough. And Bunn takes his time getting around to revealing it. One of the most effective things about this collection is how Bunn handles all the revelations.
When the book starts, he introduces the reader to protagonist Emmy. She lives on a farm in sometime in the indistinct, probably pre-WII past–automobiles but not everyone had electricity so maybe the twenties or thirties. It doesn’t matter because Emmy lives on the farm and doesn’t have much contact with the outside world. Just a weekly visit from a salesman and his daughter, who’s about Emmy’s age. They’re black, however, which Bunn uses to throw suspicion on Emmy’s father (either we aren’t supposed to like him because he’s racist or we aren’t supposed to like him because he’s suspicious).
Bunn does a fabulous job setting up the first issue because there’s no hint where the story is actually going. He still hasn’t given anyone–not Emmy, not the reader–enough information. When he does get around to doling it out, he reveals it at a pace to get up the reader’s expectations for upcoming scenes. It’s effective. Harrow County is an effective, well-structured comic book. Just because it has a cute little calf doesn’t mean it’s not a serious book.
Tyler Crook’s art is an essential, just because he handles Emmy’s innocence and determination so well. Her character has to develop through the collection while getting in dutch with the reader. Bunn gives her a lot of defining stuff real early on because the eventually Harrow County slows down a lot and goes scene-to-scene. Crook is able to speed up and slow down as needed. His establishing panels, utilizing foreground and background focus, are phenomenal. Crook handles the passage of time better than Bunn; whenever Bunn does it, there’s immediately a stronger reinforcement from Crook. It makes the book a bit of a treat to read, once it’s established, because of the way they’re able to deal with the events and the players. Harrow County doesn’t have any laughs, but it does have its humor.
And while Emmy’s the lead, Bunn’s narration is instead a close third person. Even though the narration doesn’t do any information dumps to get the reader caught up, it direct the reader’s attention. The story is about Emmy, Emmy is the protagonist (it’ll be interesting to see how Bunn handles Emmy being more active with this approach to narration), and the reader is sort of along for the ride. There’s a folk tale element to it all, with Emmy being the one who realizes the world’s not a folk tale.
As a first collection, Harrow County is a standout. It establishes its characters, quickly defines its setting, quickly defines its dangers, makes promises about what’s to come, plants expectations in the reader’s mind, has some great art. It even has an out of left field cliffhanger, but also one completely in line with the world Bunn and Crook set up. It’s interesting as the separate issues don’t have the same kind of cliffhanger–Bunn knows how to keep the reader interested. Not even guessing, just interested. And it works because Emmy’s such a strong character.
With the exception of forcing the reader to make judgment calls on characters (one time), Bunn’s writing is excellent. Even when he goes on too long with the narration, it pays off because of the art. Crook creates a terrifying, but acceptable vision. The boy without skin and skin without boy who end up as Emmy’s sidekicks–oh, forgot to mention, she’s a reincarnated witch who’s trying real hard not to be bad–they ought to be too disturbing, but Crook makes them somewhat adorable. Even if they are dangerous (possibly to Emmy).
Like I said, it’s a standout. Harrow County sets a high bar for itself.
Writer, Cullen Bunn; artist, Tyler Crook; editors, Ian Tucker and Daniel Chabon; publisher, Dark Horse Comics.