Steve Niles and Greg Ruth give us a wonderful little coming of age story in Freaks of the Heartland from Dark Horse Comics. The book chronicles a tale of two brothers, Trevor, and the time he spent on the farm as a youngster with his brother Will. It was not an easy time as their father was always angry and their mom was always depressed and it was not because of anything that Trevor did specifically, but because of his brother Will and the way he was born. Will, along with a number of other babies in the community, were all born at the same time and the problem, as it were, was how they all ended up being deformed in one way or another. A problem only it seems, for the adults and for society at large. So Trevor and Will go on the run to make a better life for themselves, rescuing as many of the children as they can along the way. Like all things in life, things just do not always go as planned.
This book does not feature your typical monster-type story that we usually get from Niles. There are no vampires, no unearthly creatures, reanimated corpses, werewolves or supernatural detectives within these pages. There is only man and the horror that we deliver unto ourselves with out small-mindedness. It is also about the fear of the unknown, about man not understanding the unusual and deciding to destroy it because it falls outside his parameters of normality. In this book it deals with fathers and children, specifically those born different from others. Admittedly, them all being born on the same day, and possibly conceived as well, was strange, but it could have been coincidence. Possibly. Man is a fickle thing. They know what they have been subjected to their entire lives and anything that is new to their world is in itself alien and foreign and must be regarded with caution. But to believe your children are monsters is another thing altogether.
Bringing this book to life with Steve Niles is Greg Ruth, who provides not only stunning covers, but some of the best interior artwork featured in a comic. His paintings bring the dystopian little town where the kids live to life as well as the beautiful countryside that they play in. His work also gives the book a sense of warmness due to the lighter palettes he chooses – yellows, tans, oranges and browns. The book has a nice wholesome feel. When the subject matter gets darker, he breaks out the blacks and the greys and the deeper shades. He gives you a palpable feel that something is not right with the situation, but it is done so perfectly you cannot help but admire the dark as much as the light. When it comes to our protagonists, Will is a tragic figure and made even more so by Ruth. He is large and lumbering, yet childlike with his innocence of all things found outside the barn where he is kept chained. He has no idea what the world is like and that wonder he experiences is manifested quite expertly by both Ruth and Niles.
For a book that is full of both hate and hope equally, the covers are quite dark in nature. There are six issues in the series and each one sports a cover that is menacing in nature yet has an incredible beauty to each and every one of them. Ruth knows how to capture the essence of the books perfectly, and lets us know what we are in for. Even the last issue of the series, which is perhaps the lightest one in both tone and colour, is just as forlorn as the rest.
To say this book might be the best thing that Steve Niles has ever done might be an understatement. It is moving, innocent, dirty, disgusting, heartwarming, hateful, hopeful and beautiful. It takes you on an adventure reminiscent of Stand by Me, and does not let you go for an instant. It also helped to have an artist providing top-notch art and it is hard seeing this book being as good with someone other than Ruth on it. While the book was probably marketed as horror, and most likely sits among other horror titles in some shops, it is much more than that. It is a story of innocence and how we start out the world so full of it, and as we get older we get distrustful and a little jaded. But it also shows us that sometimes we can overcome and keep that innocence, now wisdom, alive no matter our age.
5 out of 5