About 2 years ago I started picking up Harrow County at World’s Greatest Comics. I expected to buy a few issues (because you can’t get enough story in a single issue to make an accurate decision on a comic book these days, a condition I’ll undoubtedly rant about at a later time) and drop it when it turned out to be lame. Instead it’s one of my favorite comics. Not of all time, but definitely of the stuff currently coming out.
The protagonist is a girl named Emmy who lives on a farm with her father in the American South — in the eponymous Harrow county. I can’t remember if they ever definitively stated her age but Emmy seems to be in her mid-teens; she has a strong independent streak coupled with a lack of experience with social interaction (due to the isolation of living in the middle of nowhere) that makes it hard to pin down her exact age. I’m no expert but judging from the clothing and level of available technology, the story’s set in the 1930s? It’s hard to tell, because however advanced the world at large may be, you get the sense that Harrow county is always a decade or two behind the times.
The first few story arcs center around Emmy exploring her world which, despite being small geographically, is rich with monsters, haunts (or “haints” as they’re colloquially called in the book), and various other supernatural entities that defy categorization. Seriously. What do you call the still “living” skin of a dead boy? It’s physical skin so it’s not a ghost. It’s not interested in eating people, so it’s not a monster. It crawls around (sort-of) and can talk so… not a zombie. So WTF is that thing?
Just one of a lot of the gross and cool creatures populating the shadows of Harrow County.
As the story goes on, it starts to delve into Emmy’s origins, a plot line which I found less interesting the more time they spent on it, as I’m one of those guys who likes a little bit of mystery in characters; I’d rather know what a character does next than how they spent the last ten summer vacations. So that may just be my personal bias.
The one thing that never disappoints is the art. It’s just plain pretty. Every page seems to be a real live watercolor painting (as opposed to a Photoshop paint-job) and each is a masterpiece. The colors are vibrant and highly saturated without seeming garish or crayola-unnatural. They also never turn muddy, which is what happens every time I pick up a brush; I’m a terrible painter. And an envious one. I’d probably keep buying the book if the story was nothing more than Emmy doing chores around the farm. It’s that good.
Just look at the pictures. That’ll save us all a few thousand words.
But I haven’t gotten to the best part yet. There’s usually a single-page “Tales of Harrow County” story at the back of most issues that packs as much creepiness as the rest of the book does. They have the feel of ghost stories told around the campfire, except actually creepy and not told by doddering old relatives who meander through digression after digression like a ball-bearing in one of those mazes you have to tilt. They feel like real folklore and bring a richer sense of the “Harrow County world” to the main stories.
I also really enjoy (and recommend) the letters column. People send in their own creepy stories about local legends they’ve heard or brushes with the supernatural they think they might’ve had. Normally, I just skip the letters because 95% fall into one of three categories:
- This book is awesome. Please have my babies.
- This book is terrible. I buy it only to burn it.
- Will you tell me the secret of X? I lack the patience to find out by reading future issues.
But not the Harrow County fans. They actually have something to say. Each letters page will save you a trip to the folklore section of your local library.
…which is why I’m writing about a horror comic book on an RPG website. Harrow County is a great source of inspiration for coming up with horror and fantasy adventures. I’m just itching to run a campaign where I can use some of the single-pagers or letter column stories as background material. It’d be cool to photocopy (or scan) one of the letters and reformat it as an ancillary character’s journal entry. Or if one character solos for a while I can pass out prints of the single-pagers and say: While Nik is exploring the abandoned factory, the rest of you can interact with the townsfolk. Here’s what they have to tell you.
I’m a big fan of multi-media in role playing. Also player hand-outs. They give your game world more context, make it feel more immersive for the players (even if they’re not big roleplayers themselves). I find that if you make it obvious that you put in a little prep work, not only will your players enjoy the game more but most will think more about their characters and how those characters interact with the world in ways other than battling monsters. The more you develop your part of the campaign, the more they’ll tend to develop theirs (i.e. their character). Mostly. There’s one guy who shows up every week who only seems interested in moving his guy around the map and occasionally rolling some dice. But then there’s always one at every table, isn’t there.
Anyway, If you can, try to track down the back issues of Harrow County rather than buying the trade paperback. For one, it supports local retailers by helping them unload inventory. For two, I don’t think the trades reprint the single-page stories that are so great. I know they won’t reprint the letters columns.