There are very few horror comics that I’ve read (and I’ve read many) that set an actual unease in my stomach — that inescapable feeling that greets you at the drop of a rollercoaster. Gideon Falls‘ first volume, from Jeff Lemire, artist Andrea Sorrentino, and colorist Dave Stewart, does so seemingly effortlessly. It’s really not a leap at all, in fact, to say that this first volume is a Lynchian, labyrinthine horror masterpiece with little fault.
What’s it about? Image’s preview reads:
The lives of a reclusive young man obsessed with a conspiracy in the city’s trash, and a washed-up Catholic priest arriving in a small town full of dark secrets, become intertwined around the mysterious legend of The Black Barn, an otherworldly building that is alleged to have appeared in both the city and the small town, throughout history, bringing death and madness in its wake.
It’s a compelling premise, and if you’re sold on the idea alone I would implore you to go pick the book up now. But, if you need a little more info, or have read the first volume and would relish in a deeper dive into what’s going on in Gideon Falls, here are three things it does exceptionally well across its first six issues, contained here in volume 1:
The Compelling Cast of Characters
If you’ve read Jeff Lemire, you know he’s a master of building not only interesting worlds and premises you care about, but characters to inhabit them. Gideon Falls is no different. There’s a strong, diverse main cast here: the troubled, perhaps not-as-crazy-as-he-seems Norton, accompanied not without hesitation by his seemingly doomed psychologist, Dr. Xu, making a compelling pair. So too, do the forborne Father Fred — looking for answers while trying to escape his past, and Sheriff Clara perhaps realizing that answers she had for a long time and refused to acknowledge make a lot more sense than she cares to admit.
These are all troubled people, yes, but they feel wholly different and unique. They speak with different voices, vernacular, and come from obviously different experiences that make both their small successes and horrible pitfalls in the faces of the much larger things happening around them and to them infinitely interesting. Horror doesn’t work well if you don’t care about the characters, and these are characters that you’ll find yourself understanding, relating to, and caring about with ease. Especially as the tension ramps up and mysterious black barns, red light shining from within and accompanied by crazed killers, make their moves.
The Balance of Traditional and Experimental Horror
It can’t be denied that Gideon Falls has its struggles, and one of them, especially across the first few issues, is pacing a tightly interconnected and dense horror story that feels wonderfully traditional, sinking its teeth into the unease of seeing a man desperately digging through trash and the like, but also slow. Things move a little frustratingly, topics are rehashed, etc. and the tension, while honing a good, bleak view visually, drags. Then, however, that all melts away as the Black Barn shifts into focus as not only a place or thing, but a kind of metaphysical antagonist — not unlike the Black Lodge of Twin Peaks.
It’s here, namely across the fifth and sixth issues, that a perfect balance is attained narratively and artistically, that this story is elevated from normal slasher fiction to cosmic horror in an unparalleled way. Lemire ramps up the tension in a Lynchian way, asking big questions of our characters and readers that they may not know the answers to, let alone have even considered, but make absolute sense within the confines of the narrative. Meanwhile, Sorrentino and Stewart keep perfect pace, breaking with the book’s established visuals and having characters literally falling through panels, off pages, across lines and screaming at poor, photocopied facsimiles of Jesus himself to great effect. Knowing how and when to change things up like this is a great sign of things to come, as well as a deft subversion of expectations and norms that keep the book not only exciting but re-readable, unlike some other horror contemporaries.
The Attention to Detail
While a strong cast of characters and a good tone are great, what really sets Gideon Falls apart, what really makes it special in my eyes, is the clarity of artistic vision the creative team is working from and for here. Every single aspect is connected, intertwined in incredible ways that pay off across all elements of the book.
Themes like obsession, best represented through Norton’s increasing obsession with the Black Barn — knowing it, finding it, building it, what have you — and with the Barn in using Norton as a doorway to the waking world in return, are hammered in not only narratively, but through haunting dialogue, through Sorrentino’s great expressive characters, and through creative design choices that highlight important elements in red outlines through the each and every issue — small obsessions themselves.
Where other books might do that with one or two, three themes at best, Gideon Falls finds a means to convey all of them this way, through the same narrative and visual languages to a satisfactory use that doesn’t feel like it’s beating you over the head, but rather inviting you into the maze in a way that pays off in spades for readers who are dying to pay attention, to look for clues and listen closely. It’s fun! Horrible, bloody, fun.
Ultimately, that’s where Gideon Falls succeeds: in inviting you in to play in its dark and demanding spaces, to look for answers and ask questions. Its denseness and complexity may feel overwhelming, it may be frustrating to wait for answers, and for those who don’t like Lynchian horror in this vein, it may feel that you’re not getting the answers you want at all — but for those ready and willing to lean into this all the way, to step through the threshold as I was and find everything there is to offer on the other side, you can’t go wrong. This is the best horror debut of the year. Don’t miss it.