Review of Wildstorm’s North 40, Issues 1 and 2

By David K. Ginn

North 40 Vol.1The first two issues of North 40 read like a pulp mash-up of comic book subgenres.  As effective as that is, it can also be a comic’s worst enemy when handled with too much zeal and not enough passion.  That’s not to say that North 40 suffers greatly from these symptoms yet, but the symptoms are there.

The plot follows as so: two teenagers open a Necronomicon-esque book, which in turn opens a black hole and turns the residents of a rural Texas town into mutants, demons, and zombies.  Only the town’s sheriff and a few others are unaffected, and with the help of a traveling witch, they try to figure out what happened.  Of course, not all of the affected are bad, and the good ones do whatever it is that good mutant-demon-zombies do.

To say North 40 is Lovecraftian would be an understatement.  The homage runs so thick and unabashedly, the effect is almost numbing.  In spite of that, it remains visually appealing, and brings to mind other Lovecraft nods such as John Carpenter’s 1993 film In the Mouth of Madness.  But while Carpenter focused on inward turmoil and insanity in a world where people turn into monsters, North 40 writer Aaron Williams focuses on the brutal, chaotic aspects.  Both Williams and artist Fiona Staples handle the subject matter with the delicacy of a B-movie director buried under crushed cans of Monster energy drink—and that’s not really such a bad thing.

Amidst the Garth Ennis-inspired setting of a modern western, and among the twisted tentacles of the townsfolk, are blips and hints of ideas that will be familiar to comic book fans: the mutant townsfolk who bare no physical deformity act in much the same way as classic superhero mutants, and there are a few images that bring Brian K. Vaughn’s classic Runaways series straight to mind.  There’s also a prevailing, Tarantino-esque adoration of classic horror comics like Tales from the Crypt that seeps through the pages like a hastily written love letter.  Ordinarily, such a blender of fan favs would be a detriment, but here it seems to work—due partly to the fact that the comic just seems to not give a crap about what you think.  To throw in all of your favorite cult comics into a decently drawn frappe and then light a cigarette to show that you’re just doing your thang—well, that takes exactly the kind of balls that are needed to make a project like this work.

Ironically, what doesn’t work is the presentation.  Any fan knows that comics are a unique storytelling medium, begging for creators to learn and exploit everything that sets them apart from other visual media.  In North 40, the medium isn’t bursting at its seams; rather, it seems to fall back on the hopscotch storytelling method as if it were a convenience.  Writing for comics isn’t about skipping around and moving through the story as quickly as possible, it’s about using subtlety and chaos to your advantage in each frame, so as to choose words and moments that give you the clearest and most insightful window into what’s going on.  North 40 doesn’t do this, and thus reads like an edited version of something much more meaningful.

North 40 Vol.2Instead of spending time developing characters who are doomed to die or become demons, Williams introduces them all later as redshirt victims or bad guys.  This annihilates any sense of danger for the lead characters, which is a bad thing.  No matter how pulp-ish a comic tries to be, if it’s a horror comic, the reader needs to feel like anyone can die at any minute.  Maybe that’s true for North 40, but in the first two issues, it doesn’t show.  Even the lead characters are introduced with one frame each, just seconds before the chaos hits.  There’s no time spent developing anything; passion and deliberate storytelling make way for an ADD-fueled slide show.

All that aside, it’s hard to judge a comic series- especially one like this- before the five-issue mark.  Once that mark is reached, the publisher has enough issues to make a comprehensive trade paperback.  If it’s a serialized narrative, the audience assumes (rightfully so) that a full story arc will be told in some form or another.  After two issues, North 40 is at best a very entertaining clusterfuck.  However, a more character-driven story is needed if Williams and Staples want to develop a steady following, and it’s very likely that will happen in the near future.

Bottom line: extremely entertaining, especially for fans of horror and modern westerns.  Anyone who loved Preacher is sure to love North 40, but the series needs time to grow into its own very complicated world.

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