Cullen Bunn’s The Sixth Gun, was, for the first two years of its run, one of my absolute favorite comic series. It was conceptually cool, and Bunn knows his way around what I call “practical magic,” which is where magic is inserted into a real-life setting in such as way as to bridge the gap between magical realism and complete and utter fantasy. That is to say, it feels oddly natural. He’s brought that same feel to Harrow County, and I dare say the series is even better than The Sixth Gun could have hoped to be.
Harrow County is a unique series in that it has two main characters: Emmy, a young witch who is a reincarnated version of an old, evil witch named Hester, and the titular Harrow County itself. Both characters are entrenched with magic that they have little control over, but Emmy’s story is about her coming to grips with her nature and powers. The land of Harrow County plays an older, wiser foil to Emmy, clearly accepting and understanding its nature.
This is helped with each issue ending with a one-page, O. Henry-style vignette about the history of Harrow County. The stories range from spooky to down-right macabre, and they further cement the idea that darkness lurked in Harrow long before Hester or Emmy arrived, and it’ll continue long after either is gone.
Emmy, on the other hand, is just coming into her powers, and she is one of the most compelling female heroines currently in my extensive reading list. She is, on the surface, the standard do-gooder character; she has a great wealth of magic and power at her command, and she just wants to help those around her. In her mind, she wants to be savior for the denizens of Harrow County, but as the story progresses, she learns that’s harder than she initially assumed.
Part of this is because of how well Bunn pits Emmy against the land. In each story arc, Emmy sets out thinking she fully understands both her powers and the way of the world. This is a fair assumption, too, given that unlike so many comic characters, Emmy does learn and remember things from her adventures. Each arc she grows wiser and more cautious, because in each arc, just as she thinks she understands the world, the world rips the rug out from under her feet, ever so slightly.
In this constant discovery of self. and the world around her, Bunn manages to balance to seemingly conflicting concepts, and that is that Emmy is both helpless to avoid her fate and the machinations around her, but she is also terribly empowered. No matter how dark her adversary, or the lesson presented, she faces it head on and, for the most part, she does it alone. Yes, she has her oddly charming and lovable skinless boy friend with her, but she susses out so much on her own accord. Having said that, she also seems to recognize when she needs to ask for help, and Bunn has given her a delightful host of female characters to lean on, when the situation calls for it.
The best part of Harrow County, though, is Bunn’s grasp of magic and horror. Despite having such charming characters, there is a real sense of dread and terror that runs throughout Harrow County‘s issues. It’s Southern Gothic the way it should be done, and it is a strong feminist piece without being consciously feminist; that is, I don’t think Bunn set out to create such a story. Which might be the best part about it. Well, that and skeletons and demons lurking behind every tree.