Plus, Texas gets its own Kolchak ‘The Night Stalker’ stand-in.
Writer: Chris Condon
Artist: Jacob Phillips
Publisher: Image Comics
American movies from the Seventies and early Eighties stood out for showcasing a kind of uncomfortable realism that erased the possibility any good could come out of the country, especially in rural areas. Chris Condon and Jacob Phillips’ comic That Texas Blood carries that same quality, but it also elevates it.
The comic’s first story arc took its time developing its interpretation of the titular state as a place that houses a very particular kind of bad that’s rooted deep in the soil. It featured a neo-Noir flavor that turned its family murder mystery into an exploration of violence done the Texas way, which Condon and Phillips go lengths to portray as uniquely vicious.
Volume 2 of the series follows suit with a story that takes Satanic panic elements and fuses them with the Lone Star state’s own brand of darkness. In an interesting twist to the story, Condon and Phillips decided to throw in a Kolchak ‘The Night Stalker-type’ character into the mix to capture the supernatural undertones that come with Satanic cult yarns. Fans of the legendary journalist played by Darren McGavin in the 1970’s will find a kind of love letter to the character hidden within the pages of That Texas Blood, showcasing the character’s absolute dedication to uncovering the truth.
The story behind Volume 2 of the series sees sheriff Joe Bob Coates takes a trip down memory lane into one of the darkest cases of his career, which involved a dead boy, a missing girl, ritualistic murders, and a bat god cult that’s on a delusional quest for otherworldly power. The case, which took place in Ambrose County in 1981, was aided by an outside investigator called Harlan Eversaul, the story’s Kolchak stand-in.
Joe Bob and Harlan team up for the case, two very different sides of the same coin. For Harlan, the truth goes above any kind of superstition that people are unwilling to believe in. For Joe Bob, the truth is determined by the law, although his worldview gets progressively altered as his interactions with Harlan become more frequent. The Kolchak connection is a sign of the comic’s versatility, and it is so well executed that I hope more characters from classic TV shows make an appearance next go-round in similar fashion.
Kolchak isn’t the only TV/movie reference present in the story. Joe Bob’s characterization, for instance, reminds me of Tommy Lee Jones’s Ed Tom Bell character in the Coen Brothers’s No Country for Old Men (2007). Bell is a weary old sheriff who’s at the end of his rope regarding his already near-depleted faith in humanity, and he makes a note of it every chance he gets. Joe Bob contemplates whether places are bad since their inception or if they accumulate evil as terrible things happen in them in same manner as Bell but with more worry, rather than resignation.
Tom Bell’s character in No Country follows a similar train of thought as Joe Bob’s but his musings fall squarely on the twisted nature of people in general. Their observations, though, stem from a shared preoccupation over the way people treat each other and how easily they can escalate into violence.
Condon’s script keeps this theme close by, making it Joe Bob’s main concern as additional details emerge from their investigation into the cult. In fact, everything is colored by it. This is perhaps one of the biggest surprises of Volume 2, its decision to keep things in a foggy metaphysical state that helps readers think about the very source of evil and violent human behavior. Condon wastes not a single speech bubble or narration box in doing so and its character are allowed to grow around it.
Phillips’ art also keeps with the theme, relying heavily on shadows and inky visuals to suggest terrible things are hiding in the shadows. But there’s always an out. The story walks a fine line with its exploration of evil and it gives readers just enough to help them reach their own conclusions. For a crime story that’s well within the realm of books like Criminal and The Violent, Volume 2’s angle is a welcome departure from tradition.
On the cult aspect of the story, the usual Charles Manson-types do make an appearance, but they’re reigned in so as not to let them swallow up the story’s other, more interesting elements. The bat god cult is a means to an end, just one of the vehicles Condon and Phillips use to explore different angles of the evil that afflicts Texas.
That Texas Blood, Volume 2 proves to be a series with a mind of its own, that isn’t content with courting expectations. Fans of the series might find influences in the films of the Coen Brothers, classic hard boiled stories, 1970’s exploitation and crime cinema, and other crime comics, but the intention behind all of it is to aim for the road less travelled and see where it takes it. Whatever the next destination might be, we can be sure it’ll be like nothing else on the stands.
That Texas Blood, vol. 2 is available now wherever books and comics are sold.
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