“You young ones are all the same.”
It was time for Abel to move on. He hurt the people he cared about at the carnival and must now face the consequences of who he is before he can return to his friends. Unfortunately, a perilous encounter might lead him astray… or closer to the answers he seeks.
Throughout Middlewest, Scottie Young has taken Abel on a very layered quest through a world filled with magic and people he doesn’t understand. This journey has preserved the parts of Abel that are fun-loving and strive for connection, while allowing him to achieve a profound level of personal growth. Jorge Corona and Jean Francois-Beaulieu have taken Abel to new and strange locations and subjected him to trials he may not be ready for while still staying true to Abel’s core sensibilities. Middlewest has really become about two simultaneous journeys: one outward and another inward. While Abel is journeying to lands he’s never seen before searching far and wide for a cure to the curse on his chest, he is also reflecting inwards on why he may have this curse in the first place, what it means, and how he can best live with it being a part of him. This issue brings Abel to places we’ve never seen before but never loses sight of Abel’s inner journey.
Middlewest spent a lot of time on the carnival, probably a lot more than anyone thought it was going to. It was pivotal to introduce a larger supporting cast and further Abel’s inner development, but some were understandably put off by how aesthetically static this quest through the Midwest was turning out to be. Well fear no longer because Scottie Young, Jorge Corona, Jean Francois-Beaulieu, and Nate Piekos are here to show the vast potential this world has to offer. It takes everything Young pitched the story would be before Middlewest #1 and reinvigorates them all in the span of one issue. This journey has grown so far beyond Abel’s small town, and this issue really makes you sit back and think about what Abel’s been through so far. Abel lived a very sheltered, guarded life somewhat dominated by anxiety and fear. He idolized his mom because his dad was cruel and violent after she left. Eventually, he left home to find her, not realizing the full consequences of his actions. Along the way, he’s learned valuable lessons about coping with anger and the values of friendship. He’s found a community with people he cares about, and he’s found people who care about him. He’s risen to the occasion, made mistakes, been let down by others, let others down, and now he’s moving on to look for more answers. The question becomes, is he running away from the truth or running towards it?
Middlewest #9 simultaneously tackles these external and internal journeys very well. You can almost feel them progressing side by side, and it’s a lot of fun to read. All of the themes brought up in previous issues return to the forefront of Middlewest #9, and you can tell that the creative team adding and building upon the scaffolding they laid out in the previous eight issues. We see the unhealthy anger and edge that has been building within Abel the last few issues start to surface more and more easily. He’s quick to suggest that getting angry is the answer to every situation, and Fox has to be the voice of reason and calm him down. The issue really shows Abels deep internal struggle and how unsettlingly easy he finds getting angry to be. He’s constantly trying to seek aid while having to avoid making habits out of unhealthy behaviors.
Additionally, however, Middlewest #9 contains all of the friendships, comradery, and community we’ve come to love. Fox has proven to be extremely loyal, always sticking up for Abel and remaining by his side. Bobby has proven to be such a valuable friend that she decides to leave Magdalena, the woman who took her in when Bobby had nothing, to go search for Abel and make things right. It shows the deep friendship they’ve forged over such a short period of time and how much Bobby cares for Abel, as well as an important sense of justice and doing just right. But it isn’t just Abel’s community we get to see. We meet the Nowak people, a community extremely familiar with Abel’s marking, calling it the heart of a storm, but also a community determined to aide a boy they’ve never met. It returns to the rural sensibilities we loved in the first few issues and brings forth the importance of taking care of others.
Next there’s the worldbuilding, and boy is there a lot of it. If the past few issues have explored the depths of the rural, Midwestern plains, Middlewest #9 shows how much more there is to discover. We begin in a woodland area that evolves into a much more lush and fertile forest. It isn’t quite tropical, but Corona’s beautiful nature scenes combined with Beaulieu’s bright greens, warm grays, and well-placed use of light are enough to remind you that the Midwest is more than just an endless expanse of fields. Beyond just the landscapes, however, there’s a deep sense of cultural, mythical, and spiritual worldbuilding as well. The Nowak people have built hopes that are a reflection of the environment they live in. They make enormous use of the vertical space that these trees have, and they seem to use a lot more wood and clay than the people of the plains. Don’t laugh, but the community is very similar to that of the Ewoks, and it’s quite adorable. Spiritually, there’s also a lot to appreciate here. The Elderikin are the wise leaders of the Nowak community, there’s Homji Billo and the Beyond Tree, the place of rest for Nokoyuna, a giant buffalo God that’s nothing short of awesome. Middlewest #9 clearly shows that Young, Corona, Beaulieu and Piekos are creating a book with a rich history.
During the issue, it’s revealed that there was a Great Plains War. Given what the Nowak people have had to make do with and the pink liquid the so-called “plaintillers” are using for power, this appears to be a war over resources. Everyone is cloaked or wears a mask, which appears to be more spiritually connected than a result of the environment. The fact that Nowak individuals sometimes have to go on these long, hunting expeditions to kill animals for food means that the local animal population is dying. They “praise the antlers” as a sign of respect and never waste anything they kill or capture. This is clearly a society that has lost a lot and greatly respect and revere what they have left.
Once we get to the Beyond Tree, Corona and Francois-Beaulieu really get to flex their muscles. The Beyond Tree is beautiful, bulbous, and very detailed while the night sky is filled with gorgeously radiant deep blues and purples. There are also glowing fireflies that dot the page and light up the night. It’s truly a beautiful scene. Piekos also gets a chance to shine in these pages. Those familiar with his work may recognize the classic font he uses for made up languages, and it’s a good one. Once Nokoyuna starts to appear, however, that’s when Piekos really shines. Almost all of the emotional impact of the next few pages is conveyed through the lettering. The wavy dialogue as Abel’s lungs get filled with some hallucinogenic, the scary and powerful SFX uttered by Nokoyuna, and finally, Nokoyuna’s dialogue, which uses a beautiful and authoritative glowing yellow font within a striking blue-gray word balloon. It conveys a sense of power clearly not from this realm. You are in just as much awe as Abel is. Corona and Beaulieu also continue to shine here as the double-page spread may just be the best of the series.
This scene gives us some very important insights into Abel and Fox as characters. Abel is very desperate at this point and isn’t afraid to ask for help. He’ll do anything to get rid of this curse, but assumes that Nokoyuna will just magically take it away, which is never the case. Fox, on the other hand, still refuses to be very sociable. With Abel, there’s a sort of “ride or die” mentality, but he often refuses help from others. If Fox had his way, the only thing he and Abel would need would be themselves. They can survive anything as long as it’s the two of them. Fox tends to be guarded an untrusting, even to the point of offending Nokoyuna. He’s very much a believer that one should forget the past and move forward. Unfortunately, that’s not always how it works, and sometimes, as Nokoyuna points out, you have to confront your past to move on from it.
The journey Abel has to go on to confront his past is a frightening one and one that illustrates a great use of compression. We get to see a number of different creatures and biomes as Abel and Fox travel along the route Nokoyuma tells them to. There’s a glorious riverside habitat, a scary desert wasteland, and a sudden winter woodland. It makes you ask what could have happened for this world to exist and wonder if it could be the cause of climate change. Most importantly, however, it makes you realize how much potential there is in this world, not just across space, but across time as well. This is especially true about the ending’s exciting big reveal.
Middlewest #9 is a great blend of all the adventure, spirit, and heart that has come before while showing a promising new world of potential. Abel and Fox continue to be strong and rich protagonists with a lot of emotional weight to carry on both an internal and external journey. If you haven’t jumped on yet, now’s the time to do so because this book’s about to take off.