The subject of today’s review is Tall Tales from the Badlands, a Western anthology written by brothers Sean and Seamus Kevin Fahey and drawn by a variety of artists. I’ve already spoken of my love for Westerns in earlier reviews, so I’m always happy to read more comics within the genre. This isn’t the first anthology I’ve reviewed for this site either, but what sets this particular one apart is that, rather than each story being by a different person, it is a collection of individual stories shared out between the same writing duo, with Sean writing three and Kevin writing the remaining two. Does this unity of vision bring with it a consistency of quality that anthologies can often lack?
The anthology starts off promisingly, with Sean Fahey providing a cracking short story called Thicker than Water, aided by Lisandro Estherren on art. Estherren’s art is sparse, with heavy blacks abstracting much of the detail of individual characters. But it works, with these shadowy figures placed against beautifully-rendered locations, with the combined effect creating an evocative sense of a near-mythic wilderness. The sharp, simple art is the ideal compliment to Fahey’s script, equally sharp and simple. You get a sense of a much larger story in the backdrop, but Fahey grinds it down to the bare bones here, the story of a retired bandit forced to sell out his old partner to save his brother’s life whizzing by like a machine while still feeling complete and satisfying. In a short space of time, we quickly come to care for Nathan Miller, who feels fully-realised with a story we’ll only get the briefest glimpse of. A gut-punch of an ending cements Thicker than Water as a high-point from which to launch the anthology.
It’s a shame then that this high-point is followed by arguably the low-point of the anthology. The set-up of Abigail sounds engaging – a housewife must protect her home and her children from invaders in her husband’s absence – and the writing of Seamus Kevin Fahey is solid enough. But the art of Jose Holder really lets the side down in this one. The early pages showcase some great visuals, with Holder skilfully portraying both the intimacy of private outpourings of emotion and the epic scope of an Old West landscape. But once we get into the action of the story, everything begins to fall apart. With cramped, muddled panel layouts and characters becoming indistinguishable from one another, even after multiple readings it’s hard to follow exactly what is going on in the main body of the piece. As a result, much of the tension and sense of peril Fahey builds up with his script is dissipated under a cloud of confusion. But on the plus side, the last panel is a showstopper.
J.C. Grande is quite a prolific artist on the indie comics scene. I wasn’t aware of him before I started doing these reviews, but since I have, his name has popped up on quite a few of the projects that have been sent my way, most notably in Jamie Gambell’s quality horror comic Omnitarium. Grande is clearly a hard-working guy, and I hope that pays off with increased recognition in the near future. The story he illustrates in this anthology, The Runt, is perhaps the best showcase I’ve seen of his work so far. He’s left to do most of the heavy-lifting with the storytelling, as much of Sean Fahey’s script is devoid of dialogue, focusing on a grizzled old dog caring for the body of his recently-deceased master. Grande more than rises to the challenge, delivering crisp, stylised art that suffers from none of the lack of clarity that sometimes troubled Omnitarium. This story was always going to soar or sink based on how effectively the art could humanise the dog and make us feel sympathy for him, and thankfully Grande is up to the task. Fahey effectively wraps the tale up with another emotional kick in the nuts, but it is the art that truly makes this story work.
Impressive art is also brought to the table in the next story, A Thousand Deaths, this time by Juam Romera. Romera’s character designs are reminiscent of the work Gabriel Ba and Fabio Moon provided for Casanova, with the unusual body shapes creating a kind of fluidity that enhances the sense of motion on the page. Seamus Kevin Fahey is once more on writing duties for this tale of a fatalistic gunslinger, but unlike with Abigail, here the art compliments his work. The result is a story that’s up there with Thicker than Water in contention for best of the bunch. The writing here is a masterful exercise in misdirection. Through the detached narration of our protagonist, we are drawn into the drama of the moment and the psyche of the character. It makes for a compelling experience. But once you are greeted with another well-calculated twist ending, I’d recommend going back to the start and rereading. You’ll get a totally different experience from the same narration, the whole drama unfolding in a different light, and even the title taking on fresh significance. Expert storytelling.
Sean Fahey takes the reins again for the final tale in the collection, Easy Livin’. Here, we follow the exploits of a lone trapper carving out a living on the American frontier… and that’s about it. The story isn’t bad by any means: I get where Fahey was going with it, it makes a clever point, and after the onslaught of grim misery we’d been subjected to up until this point it was quite nice to end with a more upbeat tale. But with the other stories built around such clever twists or powerful closing moments, I read through Easy Livin’ waiting for something to happen, and it never did. Thankfully, we’re once again treated to some lovely art, this time by Borch Pena. With a story that is built almost entirely around the wonder and romanticism of a trapper’s life on the frontier, it is essential that the visuals give us a stirring sense of place. Mission accomplished on this front, as Pena brings a variety of locations convincingly to life, really giving us a sense of this world. As a final note about the art through the anthology in general, I’d like to remark that the absence of color was never really felt for me. The art – for the most part – is beautiful and effective in black-and-white.
The issue of some stories being better than others is still here in this anthology, as I imagine it is in just about all anthologies produced. But with the brothers Fahey collaborating on the whole anthology between them, the stories contained within feel a lot more like they’re part of the same world than, say, 8: A Steampunk Anthology. This is a harsh, morally strained world, where happiness is hard-fought, and often in peril, and both the Fahey brothers excel at bringing that world to life in Tall Tales from the Badlands, thanks largely to the contributions of a talented crop of artists. Definitely worth a look.