Adolescence is an odyssey for most people. It doesn't matter if you hail from a well-to-do family dwelling carefree in a McMansion, or if your kin just barely scrapes up enough money to keep the lights on and the rent paid. We all have some element of commonality when it comes to our individual youthful experiences. Everyone made grand mistakes (ones we often repeated until the lesson was hammered into our heads), and we forged bonds with people who, for the time, at least, were the most important voices in our respective worlds. Its a time of harrowing experiences, of imagination, and those aforementioned mistakes and loved ones feeding into their creation, ultimately building a common sense of nostalgia when we look back on our lives, or read a fictional tale set in that awkward period.
The new ongoing Image Comics series by writer Skottie Young (Rocket Raccoon, I Hate Fairyland) and artist Jorge Corona (Teen Titans Go!, We Are Robine), Middlewest toys with the notion of youth fractured with kaleidoscope beauty and wonder, but how the pieces all fit back together have yet to be seen.
Middlewest #1 is an interesting work in how it tackles its subject matter. The book feels equal parts derivative and wholly unique. This comes as no surprise, as Young has mentioned that the series was designed to pay homage to the dark-fantasy children's stories of his youth. Works like The Dark Crystal, The NeverEnding Story, and the collective films of Don Bluth have clearly left a mark on Young. Middlewest is bursting at the seams with talking animals, dark premonitions and everyday life in small town America. But the elements never quite gel like they should; at least, not in this first issue. If anything, things feel a bit rushed. But while not much is explained, it does seem like Young and Corona are showing too much of their hand early. And while that isn't always a bad thing (especially when trying to hook readers to stay with the series), here, it feels a bit unfocused.
The story follows a pre-teen named Able, who lives in small town with his emotionally abusive and distant father. Early on, we get a rather heavy-handed sense of the tensions between Able and his dad, along with the reason the matriarch of the family is no longer there. While the inciting incident is never explicitly spelled out, the animosity between these two leaps off the page and leaves little for a sense of nuance in either character. Now, this dynamic may change, but Able's dad is laying it on pretty thick early on.
Beyond terrible (or non existent parents) Middlewest #1 focuses on Able's relationship with his friends and the small town he lives in. A lot of it works pretty well even if we get a few of the kids over-written in terms of their precocious dialogue and reasoning.
Where Young really excels as a writer is when the more fantastical elements kick in. They are presented very straightforward; there isn't a huge to-do over the fact there's a talking fox in this comic, and the idea of a giant monster made out of tornadoes just seems natural. The world of Middlewest itself is also captivating. There are details and visual cues sprinkled throughout the book to give readers the sense that this is a different reality we are seeing. It may look familiar, but even ignoring the talking foxes and tornado monsters, it's clear Able's world is not our own.
The more naturalistic elements of Middlewest would not exist with the help of Jorge Corona's brilliant artwork. Much like Young, Corona is insanely talented cartoonist. His character design work is always compelling, and the world he has rendered here feels real and lived in. Nothing seems out of place. The visual language used on the page doesn't stutter or speak in contractions. Everything is right up front, and it's wonderful. It's interesting that Young didn't illustrate Middlewest himself, seeing as how he has said the book is such a personal work to him (surely it's a matter of time constraints; we couldn't imagine drawing multiple books on a monthly basis), but enlisting Corona was a wise choice. His style has a more gritty feel to it, and it lends itself well to the material.
In the end, Middlewest #1 is a strange beast. There is a lot of great stuff going on in this first issue, but it does feel like Young may have overshared a little too much, too soon. However, the final act of the issue carries enough oomph to have us clamoring to get the next issue. For all its shortcomings, Middlewest feels wholly original, despite feeling so very familiar, like a quilt your grandmother kept on her sofa, but found in a home you've never been to.