REVIEW: Tall Tales from the Badlands #2

About a year ago, I reviewed a Western anthology called Tall Tales from the Badlands, written by brothers Sean and Seamus Kevin Fahey, and drawn by a variety of talented indie artists.  It was a quality comic, one of the better anthology books I’ve read.  So I was pleased to see the brothers Fahey return with a sequel, teaming with a new roster of artists and an additional writer in Nick Nunziata.  Would Tall Tales from the Badlands #2 be able to recapture the magic created by its predecessor?

Thankfully, the first story in the collection – “A Nation of Laws” – very quickly confirms that yes, indeed it can.  We quickly get a sense that we know where this tale of a sheriff determined to see a criminal face the true justice of a fair trial is going to go, but all the same, the journey to get there is a joy to behold.  Sean Fahey really gets to flex his muscles as a storyteller, skillfully rolling out dialogue that conveys a lot of information naturalistically, while still being convincingly of the era depicted.  There is a lot of dialogue in this, but it never feels intrusive.  Also of note is the detailed, expressive art of Borja “Borch” Pena, probably the finest featured in the anthology.  His visuals nail all the beats, from the big, pivotal moments to the little nuances of facial expression, and it’s all just so slick and polished.  I’m not lying when I say that I’ve read Vertigo books with art of similar quality.  I’d be very keen to see Pena handle something of greater length.  All told, “A Nation of Laws” is a stellar start to the second anthology, and was very wisely chosen to lead the way.

The next story is “The Great Wall”, also written by Sean Fahey.  This is something of an interesting twist not to my knowledge used in any of the previous anthology stories, as it is set in the 20th Century, after the era of the Wild West has passed.  Initially I thought this would be a framing device before flashing back to an Old West tale, but no, the whole thing is set in this later era.  In an interesting change of pace, the story is built pretty much entirely around words, along with the occasional photograph, and we stick with the aged great-grandfather recounting his experiences as a Chinese immigrant in 19th Century America.  By not taking the easy out and slipping into a more immediate view of his past, our focus remains on Mr. Lee as an old man, and his relationship with his great-grandson.  Not an easy task to pull this story off and make it interesting, but Fahey succeeds, largely thanks to what appears to be some meticulously researched accounts of trade history in the area.  The only letdown in this story is the art of Giannis Milonogiannis.  It’s good linework, but the lack of any grayscale makes the pages feel incomplete, especially after Pena’s textured work in the previous story.  But still, a sweet story that comes at its subject matter from a refreshing angle.

New arrival Nick Nunziata steps up for the third story, “Paw”, and is certainly quick to grab our attention, opening with a reveal of a dead child with a bullet hole in his head.  The story, about the aftermath and consequences of this child’s death – caused by a stray bullet in a gunfight – is suitably emotionally raw, and slips seamlessly into the tone established in the stories written by the Faheys.  After the first two stories, which were quite dense with dialogue and grounded in a lot of factual elements, the more sparse, lyrical quality of this tale was a nice way to change things up a bit.  The artwork of Carlos Trigo was a bit jarring at first, as it’s a very cartoony style for what is an incredibly dark story, but once I got over the sharp contrast, I came to appreciate the crisp, clean quality of his lines, and the dynamic angles employed in the various panels.  Trigo likes to set his “camera” close to the characters in most of his shots, giving you a sense of being immersed right in amidst the drama and emotion.

“The Fastest Way From Here to There” is the only contribution in this volume from Seamus Kevin Fahey, and I’m saddened to say it is the weakest story of the collection.  Not that it’s necessarily a bad story.  It’s a clever idea – a silent story following the life of a horse in the Old West as it travels from freedom to captivity and back again, via various changes in ownership – but it’s not given enough pages to have the impact or resonance it could have had.  It’s not helped by the artwork of Pablo Peppino which, while offering some nice landscape works, is sparse to the point of furthering the emotional disengage in the reader.

We go back to Sean Fahey for “The Inside Man”, which while the weakest of his three offerings in this anthology, still stands as a solid tale, with a genuine surprise twist at its conclusion.  Ger Cutri’s artwork is also lacking in grayscale or shading, but doesn’t suffer so much because Cutri’s style feels so much like a throwback to the art of an old-school Western comic.  While executed well enough, I felt this was something of a low-key choice to finish the anthology with, and I was hungry for even one more short to wrap the whole thing up with a bang.  To compensate, however, we do get a selection of lovely pinups for backmatter.

I have to give special mention to the work of Kel Nuttall, who letters all of the stories in this volume.  I know first hand from working with him that Kel is a fantastic letterer, and he continues to demonstrate his craft here.  As mentioned before, there are certain stories where pages are dense with dialogue, and it’s to Kel’s credit that nothing ever feels crammed in or untidy, and can always be read and followed with absolute clarity.  Sterling work as ever, Mr. Nuttall.

Overall, Tall Tales from the Badlands #2 was a worthy successor to the first installment, and has helped turn a noteworthy one-off anthology into a brand that is coming to represent a watermark of quality.  I’m already keenly anticipating Tall Tales from the Badlands #3.

Tall Tales from the Badlands #2 is available to buy from DriveThruComics and Graphicly.

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