In horror stories, you’re supposed to side with the victims. They might be young and dumb but they’re not evil, and they certainly don’t deserve the torture, maiming and inevitable death the story brings them.
In Redlands, the new Image Comics series from writer and colorist Jordie Bellaire and artist Vanesa Del Rey, the victims are cops. They’re trapped inside the police station in Redlands, Florida, while three nooses hang from a burning tree outside. Heroic cops are also a horror trope, so it’s familiar territory, until you notice the first words these cops use: “Where did them bitches go?” And the Confederate flag hanging beside the gun rack inside the station. And the complete lack of care about the prisoners in the cells down below. And the easy violence between the sheriff and his son, also a cop. Maybe these guys aren’t heroes after all.
That’s not to say that the witches ("bitches," as the cops put it) they tried to lynch are righteous victims themselves. They might be, and most of their violence happens right after one of the cops basically says “Those bitches were asking for it”, a call for violence every woman's familiar with, but very little information is given about these women in issue #1. They’re just dark blurs or horned demons, whooshing outside and around the station until BLAM BLAM SPLAT, the next cop is dead. They don’t speak until they’ve got the Sheriff on his knees at the end of the issue. This could easily be a dark revenge story, but Bellaire's writing transcends that. Nothing is that simple in Redlands.
Del Rey’s art fits the dark horror tone perfectly. There’s lots of hatching and cross-hatching, giving it an intensely messy, sweaty look. Life in Redlands is dirty, relentless, real. The colors fit the 1970s time frame of the story, lots of orange and brown, but the lines themselves look like studies of Victorian medical or magazine illustrations, but just a bit rougher than expected. Every person is a little grotesque, even the witches when they finally appear in human form. They’re glamorous but viewed from below, looming large over the viewer with the proportions just slightly off. It’s unnerving.
Bellaire is well known for her color work -- her name is enough to get many people to pick up a book -- and her work in Redlands is as good as ever. As the cops peer out of windows onto the burning tree where they just tried to lynch three women, the gorgeous red gold reflection of that fire reminds us that the windows are there, and reinforces how trapped these men are. And the men who those cops have trapped in the cells beneath the police station, only with them do we start to see distinctions in skin tone. These are people of color in the eerie green light of the prison cells, but more importantly they are individuals, colored distinctly from each other. In contrast, the cops are white guy after white guy, all with the same skin tone and sideburns. The only real difference between these men is whether they sport a good '70s mustache or not.
The lettering is the only aspect of Redlands that could use some improvement. Clayton Cowles’ work is usually excellent but the speech bubbles feel downright roomy here. His sound effects are excellent, though, breaking through panels like the monsters creating them.
Bellaire’s writing debut poses smart questions; she’s said in interviews that this story has been with her for a while, and it shows. Working with the depth of witch history and mythology, as well as second-wave feminism’s focus on economics and power, Redlands posits a town in which women disrupt the patriarchy -- literally destroying the structures that prop it up -- and take over. These women don’t want to kill everyone, although those racist cops could use a comeuppance. Instead, they’re taking over the town. They want a clean slate, a new home rising like a phoenix from the ashes of cleansing fire. At one point, one of the prisoners says, “I’d rather have a town run by monsters instead of murderers.” It seems like that’s what he’s going to get.
Redlands belongs to the monsters. The bitches. So what comes next?