Written by J.T. Petty
Art by Hilary Florido
160 pages, color
Published by First Second
One of the things that I appreciate about First Second’s graphic novel line is that they don’t seem to ever confine themselves to one specific genre or mood. It means that there’s room for books like Bloody Chester by J.T. Petty and Hilary Florido, a Western about a teen who agrees to go on a mission to burn down an abandoned town in order to break free from his tormentors, but finds just as many problems at his destination. It’s an odd little book, but one that grew on me the more I thought about it.
J.T. Petty’s plot for Bloody Chester is one that seems simple at first; Chester heads out to burn down a town so the ever-expanding railroad can place its tracks there, only to find that there are still three people living inside the town itself that refuse to leave. It’s a familiar plot that we’ve seen in all sorts of different mediums, and at first it’s straightforward. Chester has to convince them to leave before he torches the place, conflict ensues. But as Petty brings us deeper into Bloody Chester, the book starts turning in directions that aren’t lining up with expectations. There’s a plague that may or may not be real, mysterious deaths, and a fourth person hiding up in the mountains that might be hiding a treasure. And at the center of it all is Chester.
Chester is the character that entire plot rotates around, and he’s a bit of a mess. I don’t mean that in terms of Petty having problems with the character, but rather that Chester himself is in many ways one bad day from a complete and utter breakdown. We can see hints of this in the first pages of the book, as he takes physical and mental abuse from the other settlers in the town. It’s honestly more than a little disturbing to read those first ten pages, as he gets trounced, gets back to his feet, and then a few minutes later takes even more abuse. Heading out to burn down the supposedly abandoned town appears to be the first real break that he’s experienced, but even that turns out to be more trouble than originally promised. A lot of that has to do with his relationship with Caroline. I appreciated that this is anything but a typical love story; there’s certainly attraction on Chester’s part towards Caroline, but this isn’t simply a matter of there being friction between the two. Instead we get concrete disagreements on what the best plan of action is, and as a result their interactions become much more real and less of a fairy tale progression of events.
Florido’s art in Bloody Chester is clean cut with a rough film over it, in many ways the perfect description of Chester himself. I like Florido’s pages here; they’ve got a jagged edge with strong storytelling techniques from page to page. The early pages where Chester’s being tormented by the townspeople are strong in part because of the way that Florido draws Chester; his filthy clothes, that determined and dark look on his face, and horrible smiles on the part of everyone else as they seem him in his plight and refuse to help. Florido brings a lot of Petty’s script to life in ways that mean that Petty doesn’t need to use words to bring the ideas across. The final big sequence upon the rooftop in particular is powerful because of how much is left unsaid, both by Chester and the Indians down below. It’s a heart-stopping way to wrap up the book, and it’s a scene that stuck with me some time after I’d gotten to the last page.
Bloody Chester is an odd book that’s hard to categorize. It’s grim with no easy answers, and when the conclusion hits there are parts that are left deliberately up in the air, hanging overhead the characters. It’s hard to say who, if anyone, "won" when Bloody Chester ends, but perhaps that’s part of the point. Those looking for a cheerful book should probably go elsewhere (although the cover alone probably can warn them away). Those looking for something a little darker, though, will probably appreciate the skill and thought that goes into Bloody Chester.