Gideon Falls: The Black Barn (2018)
Written by Jeff Lemire
Art by Andrea Sorrentino
Father Wilfred has been reassigned to a new parish after issues with drinking. His new home will be the rural town of Gideon Falls, where their last priest went missing and is presumed dead. His first night in the priest’s quarters of the church leads to an encounter with the absent father and the corpse of Mrs. Tremblay; the church secretary/housekeeper found bled out in a cornfield. Wilfred swears he saw a black barn in that field, but the police find no traces of it and suspect Wilfred was involved in the murder. Meanwhile, in a city far away a paranoid schizophrenic man named Norton scours the back alleys and dumpsters for fragments of charred wood and rusted nails. Norton believes the city is revealing a larger cosmic truth to him, that all of these pieces when assembled will make a construct that answers questions he has repressed. The stories of these two men living great distances from each other slowly become entangled and promise to lead to genuinely dark places.
Writer Jeff Lemire details the origins of Gideon Falls in the first issue’s coda. During Lemire’s college years he explored an interest in film, during this time he developed the character of Norton Sinclair, being inspired by the filthiness of Toronto. The short movie Lemire made featured the same setup, Norton scavenging through trash and dissecting what he finds in his apartment. That short ends with the protagonist finding an alien lifeform which Lemire admits was “silly” but states it was “probably the first steps of me figuring out my voice as a storyteller.”
Father Fred came up as the central figure of a graphic novel Lemire worked on in his last year of film school. This was just Fred, an old factory worker who was plagued by demons. This was also where Lemire tried to integrate Norton into a parallel narrative. While this attempt didn’t pan out, Lemire kept the story elements on the back burner while penning Sweet Tooth for Vertigo and writing a ton of things for DC and Marvel. After working with artist Andrea Sorrentino on Old Man Logan for Marvel, Lemire came back to this concept, and the two of them hashed out the details. Lemire states that he and Sorrentino have the entire story planned out down to the number of issues it will take to hit every plot beat. Gideon Falls is being developed for television already by the same studio behind Netflix’s The Witcher, Syfy’s The Expanse, and the upcoming Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark film.
There is a strong vein of Twin Peaks running through Gideon Falls and Lemire isn’t shy about acknowledging the influence. The Black Barn, whose contents we see for the first time in the conclusion of this opening arc, is very much inspired by Twin Peaks’ Black Lodge. The Barn is an inconstant point in space and time that needs the right cosmic conditions to make an appearance; certain people and events need to be aligned to make that happen. Beyond that, Gideon Falls is a small town with a dark history borne out of the Black Barn. We learn about a secret society that’s been in operation for decades that devotes itself to the investigation and suppression of the dark forces that plague Gideon Falls.
Lemire cleverly holds back the topic of most discussion in the comic for the end. Instead, he spends his time building the mythos and letting us get to understand the characters. Like any good piece of horror media, there is an effort to create an emotional connection with the audience and to communicate the stakes before escalating things. We delve deep with Norton and his ongoing issues with mental health, learning about his regular visits to a therapist and how even she is reluctantly on the fence about his delusions. What makes that even more poignant is that Norton never disagrees that he is mentally ill and his compulsions are habituated so that he doesn’t contemplate them. They have become part of his daily instinct. I’d say Norton is a more engaging character than Father Fred at this point. Fred has spent most of the series being introduced to citizens in the town and learning fragments of the mythos. We do get character beats with the priest, but they aren’t as grounded and explored as Norton’s portion of the story.
The Black Barn is a fantastic opener that promises to develop into something great. Lemire makes the story feel like it has weight and consequence, there’s momentum developing and it causes me to want to keep reading to see how these fragments come together to make a whole. The horror is done in nuanced touches, and Lemire saves the most profound bits for the last couple of chapters. When you have a creation like the Black Barn is it easy to create in story hype around it, then fail to deliver on the expectations of readers. Artist Andrea Sorrentino meets us where we are and presents something not wholly incomprehensible but with enough familiar threads that we want to go back and learn the roots of this evil. I have to say; I’m looking forward to the next volume.