Gideon Falls by Jeff Lemire, Andrea Sorrentino and Dave Stewart

Gideon Falls #1-5
Written by Jeff Lemire
Illustrated by Andrea Sorrentino
Colors by Dave Stewart
Letters and design by Steve Wands
Edits by Will Dennis
Published by Image Comics

Gideon Falls is without question one of my favorite series of 2018. It’s brought to life by the all-star creative team of writer Jeff Lemire, artist Andrea Sorrentino, and colorist Dave Stewart. Through 5 issues, Gideon Falls is a comic that delivers truly scary and creepy moments, a complex and intriguing world, and some absolutely jaw-dropping, terrifying and gorgeous art.

Gideon Falls tells two parallel stories. First, it focuses on Father Fred, a Catholic Priest who’s been assigned to the church in the small town of Gideon Falls. Fred has something of a challenging past, as he’s dealt with alcohol and anger issues. Immediately Fred is pulled into some dark happenings, as there’s a murder in town, and Fred is pretty sure that the person who did it was the Priest who Father Fred is replacing, Father Tom. The only problem is that Father Tom died recently, which is what brought Father Fred to town in the first place. As Father Fred is the chief suspect at the outset, he meets Sheriff Clara Miller. Eventually he’s cleared, and he and Sheriff Miller develop something of a grudging respect. Father Fred also comes in contact with the eccentric Doc Sutton, a member of a local group called the Ploughmen, who seem to have some understanding of the weird and dark happenings in town. It all seems to revolve around a mysterious black barn.

Simultaneously, Gideon Falls tells the story of Norton, a highly eccentric man with a mysterious past, living a spartan and unusual existence in the city. Norton’s only contact with other people is his regular meetings with Dr. Xu, the psychiatrist who’s been treating him and allowed his release from the psychiatric hospital where he had been previously. He always wears a breathing mask, and he spends his days searching through garbage looking for pieces of wood. He believes those pieces of wood are part of something called the black barn. Dr. Xu believes Norton is still suffering from profound mental illness, but then something happens to her to make her question everything.

Something that has always interested me as a comics reader is the way in which certain writers return to specific themes, which serve as through-lines from one story to another, and Jeff Lemire is no exception. He has consistently explored themes of loneliness and alienation, existential displacement and confusion (characters trapped in a world that just seems wrong), the effects of mental illness, and the tenuous nature of reality. Lemire has thoughtfully explored these ideas to great effect in many different stories, whether in “Big 2” superhero stories, or in his own creator-owned work. His Moon Knight run was about a character who doesn't know what's real and seems to be trapped in one delusion or another. Old Man Logan was, at its heart, a story about a man profoundly displaced in space and time, trying to make sense of the world around him. His new run on The Sentry is about a mentally damaged character who can only keep the evil arch-nemesis (who lives inside his mind) at bay by visiting a fantasy-world once a day.

Books like Sweet Tooth and Trillium are all about the themes of loneliness and found families and a sense of people trying come together to overcome something that's very wrong with the world or even reality itself. Royal City looks at the tragic way a family coped with the death of one of its members; each of them connects differently to the character’s ghost (maybe? Maybe a collective psychosis?) Plutona is also an exploration of a group of lonely people in a world full of superheroes. Black Hammer is a comic that synthesizes many of these ideas; it's an independent (but superhero-related) story about a group of people who are thrust out of the world they knew into a strange situation, where all they have is each other; but each of them is profoundly alone and lonely in their own ways, looking for meaning and a way to make sense of their circumstances. They're also trying to solve the mystery of where they actually are and why they're cut off from the rest of the world.

Lemire, Sorrentino and Stewart bring the above themes to gorgeous, weird life in the pages of Gideon Falls. Norton and Father Fred are classic Lemire protagonists - Norton knows there’s something profound and terrible beyond our world, and it’s cost him his sanity and any semblance of a normal life. Father Fred is a Priest who’s near the end of his rope at a professional level, a man of God who’s struggled with anger, alcohol, and seems at his heart to be skeptical and maybe even in the midst of a crisis of faith. Fred is a great protagonist for this sort of religious supernatural horror story, as he’s a “holy man” but also is among the most profoundly skeptical people in the entire story. The kind of priest who thinks nothing of muttering “Christ almighty” to himself as a town resident flashes Fred a forced friendly smile. But, as in other Lemire stories, strange circumstances make for strange bedfellows, and Father Fred makes something of an unlikely bond with Sheriff Miller, and Norton and Dr. Xu discover that they have more of a connection than either of them would have thought.

I don’t typically think of myself as a huge fan of horror stories. But as I think about the stories I love, a number of them happen to be scary. The Vision, for example. Not typically what one thinks of when you think of a horror story - but it effectively creates such an impending sense of existential dread, I find that pretty frightening and incredibly compelling. That being said, I also love Nameless, which is definitely a sci-fi horror “terrible things in space” story, with horrific violence and gore. I guess what’s important to me is that it first be an interesting story with great art. If you’ve got that, then feel free to scare the crap out of me.

Gideon Falls is scary in what I consider to be the best possible way, which is that you never truly see the nature of the evil or the threat, but you can really make out the shape of it based on the terrible ways it’s impacted people in both parts of the story. Whatever the black barn is, it seems to be causing people to have some pretty dark, scary thoughts, and to do some terrible things. We don’t need to see the full scope of it to know it’s horrific. But when we do see glimpses of the black barn, I can confirm that it scared the bejeezus out of me.
Speaking of art that scared the bejeezus out of me, Sorrentino and Stewart really bring the (dark, evil) magic to Gideon Falls and make it a memorable read; they’re a true all-star team on art. Sorrentino is a master line artist. He’s got a line that’s detailed and really precise, but at the same time is rough enough that it still forces your mind to fill in some of the shapes connecting lines on the page. He’s always been an interesting and dynamic sequential storyteller, but he really brings his work up a whole other level in Gideon Falls. There’s a huge variety of panel and layout design in the story, and while the work looks virtuosic, it doesn’t feel like Sorrentino is just showing off. The technical flourishes feel like they serve to bring the story to weird, creepy life.

One example of this can be found on a page above. At the top of the page is a huge circle around the sight of Norton finding a piece of wood (specifically, Norton’s hand holding a sliver of wood). Stewart has given this a bright red background, to bring this into clear focus as the moment of insight and importance. What follows in the panels below is the sequence of events after this moment of insight, as the camera moves in to focus on the sliver being placed by Norton into a specimen jar, and then as Norton walks away, about to fade into the fog. The oversized panel at the top of the page shows us what a big deal finding this sample is to Norton, and then the series of panels afterwards shows us Norton’s methodical nature, and then, as we watch him slump away into the depressing fog of the city, we are reminded of the dreary world in which Norton exists.

Honestly, I really can’t say enough about Sorrentino’s innovative layout and design work in this comic. I read lots of comics each week and I have for the past 10 years or so, since I first got back into comics as an adult. And I’ve read hundreds of other trades and graphic novels. At this point, it’s not that often that I read a comic and see something that makes me truly say “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone do that before”. Well, that’s happened to me in several issues of Gideon Falls. In issue 1 and then again in issue 2, there’s a view of Norton’s apartment which is done in a perspective that I’ve never seen before. It’s a double-page spread, that essentially provides almost a 360 degree view of the apartment. It’s sort of like a fish-eye lens, but not exactly. It’s a clever way to really show the proverbial depressing fishbowl in which Norton is trapped, with a warped sense of perspective that seems entirely appropriate to the weird sense of unreality that pervades the story. When technical innovations are used to make an important point about the story itself, that’s innovative and thoughtful storytelling.

Sorrentino does some terrifically detailed figure work, and his approach to character design is very realistic and grounded. Particularly in this book where there are no larger than life superheroes, every single character is designed with great, precise differentiation and detail. Father Fred really looks like an older man who’s seen some hard days, and Norton looks like a recluse, and each of he and Sheriff Miller and Dr. Xu are very specifically designed. There’s also an older woman in issue 1 who looks like a real, specific woman plucked out of the world and put into a comic book; she’s a little heavier, has a cute cat sweater, and just feels authentic to this world. That level of care extends not just to the character design itself but also to the highly precise, careful, character interactions. The relationship between Dr. Xu and Norton is that of therapist and patient, and that really does come across in their facial expressions and body movements. The same is true for the Father and the Sheriff; she’s skeptical and antagonistic and he’s weary and confused. And Sorrentino’s line really brings that across.

Much of why this comic works so well is the true collaboration between Sorrentino and Stewart. On colors, Sorrentino typically colors his own work (I believe). And I love what he does on colors. He has a very stylized, atmospheric color palate, which he’s used to great effect in a number of books such as Old Man Logan and Green Arrow (two previous collaborations with Lemire, though Brian Michael Bendis wrote the first arc of Old Man Logan). He will sometimes have a page where very little is colored, but there’s splashes or even explosions of red on the page indicating rage or violence. It’s a very specific style of coloring and it’s one of the things I enjoyed so much about his work on Old Man Logan. His weird atmospheric colors perfectly suited a violent man who was in, what must have felt to him, like an insane hallucination as he found himself back in time, in a different past than he remembered.

All of this to say that I’m a huge fan of Sorrentino’s own coloring of his work, but I’m thrilled with the collaboration between Sorrentino and Stewart in the pages of Gideon Falls, and I feel like it’s potentially enabled me to develop even more of an appreciation for Sorrentino’s line work. That’s the power of a great colorist. Stewart makes the smart choice here to go for a more restrained color palate. The world that these characters inhabit is drab and grim and lived in, so a more muted and realistic color palate feels appropriate. When Father Fred first goes into the living quarters at the church, the faded yellows are an effective choice in conveying that this is a living space that volunteers have tried to maintain, but was probably last painted a long time ago.

Similarly, when we see the inside of Norton’s aforementioned apartment, it’s a profoundly depressing place. The walls and ceiling are brutally grim shades of gray, and the signs of cracking and wear and tear on every surface give this apartment n almost overpowering sense of sadness. This apartment really helps convey Norton’s essence as a lonely, obsessed, sad figure who wouldn’t be out of place in a Dostoevsky novel. Stewart also provides an interesting effect on virtually every page of the comic; there are tiny vertical lines on every page that give the appearance that this is a book where the pages have been folded back and forth and there are cracks in the art, due to wear and tear. In some cases it looks a little like rain, and in others it feels almost like the art is going to start fading away. I found this very effective, and not at all gimmicky. Rather, I thought it added to the general existential sense of dead in the story as the art conveys the sense of a reality which might be cracking or fading away.

But what Stewart does so effectively is to occasionally use color that’s not at all realistic. When there are moments of great tension, or when illustrating an object that has a link to the supernatural darkness that pervades the story, Stewart will strategically use a bloody red to convey the evil that’s present in this panel or page. Such as in the above-discussed page where Norton finds a sliver of wood, the key moment or insight is highlighted (or encircled) by blood-red; a moment of key, potentially violent importance in an otherwise relentlessly drab world. It's another thoughtful touch in a carefully constructed book.

I think that Lemire’s work resonates with so many people because while most people don’t dress up in costumes and fight crime, most everyone feels lonely and alienated from others sometimes. And living in a world of ghosts and supernatural buildings is rare. But feeling like you might be losing your grip on what’s real in your life, or looking around and just feeling, at a fundamental level, that something is just wrong? Those are experiences that are common and universal, and I know these themes resonate personally for me.

Gideon Falls is a great, scary story that’s building up a creepy and engaging mythology. It’s a profound, insightful and empathetic look at lonely, scared people trying to understand an insane world. It’s also one of the best looking comics that you can buy these days. So, not surprisingly, I highly recommend it.