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Redneck Volume 1 (Review)

Redneck Volume 1
Image Comics: Trade Paperback: October 2017
Writer: Donny Cates

In the American vernacular, a “redneck” is a term:

a. used for a white person, often from the south-eastern United States; and
b. is also often associated with poverty, a lack of education or cultural sophistication, and a fundamentalist belief in the Christian religion.

The series Redneck from American publisher Image Comics takes that term and applies it to a popular creature from folklore and mythology, the vampire. Written by Donny Cates, Redneck explores the life of a family of vampires living in East Texas, outside the small town of Sulphur Springs.

The main protagonist of the series is Bartlett Bowman, an adopted uncle of sorts to the family. Bartlett came to be a vampire under different circumstances from the rest of the family. That family consists of JV, Bartlett’s “brother,” and JV’s three “teenage” sons Seamus, Greg, and Slap. The lone female of the family is a character that takes the form of a young girl named Perry. JV’s father “Grampa” lives in the attic of the dilapidated farmhouse the family calls home. JV had a wife named Meredith, mother to the children. She has been dead and gone for quite some time before the story starts.

Mr. Cates does a fine job of outlining the mythology of his series. While Bartlett was born human and became a vampire after a he had been bitten by a member of the Bowman clan, the vampires of Mr. Cates’ world can reproduce in much the same way humans do. These vampires appear to age slowly, and the reader is told that older vampires are far weaker than younger ones. Seamus and Greg Bowman are, despite appearances, over sixty years old. Perry is likewise far older than the character visually appears. Bartlett became a vampire around the time of the Texas War for Independence from Mexico. Grampa in the attic looks far less human than the others, appearing more bat-like in his general appearance.

While all the vampires appear to be far physically stronger than ordinary humans, psychic powers are rare and only Perry and Grampa exhibit these. The vampires also have the standard vampire weakness of direct sunlight. This weakness is even used for comical effect: at one point as a mosquito, fresh from drinking Bartlett’s blood, explodes into flames once it flies off the Bowman’s shaded front porch.

The Bowmans are currently a family in hiding. JV, as head of the family, decreed it as such due to the danger of being exposed to the greater humanity. Greg, Seamus, and especially Grampa chafe at this instruction, but problems arise when JV’s three sons decide to head into town on the night of Christmas Eve to enjoy some time in a strip club. Bartlett, at JV’s request, follows the three. That may or may not be a good thing as the vampires have an encounter with Father Landry, a descendant of the family that has been aware of the Bowmans and their true nature for as long as Bartlett has been a vampire. Indeed, it was during a chase from some Texas Rangers that Bartlett was discovered by the Bowmans. The Rangers attempted to intercede, costing all but one of the Rangers their lives, and that surviving Ranger was an ancestor of Father Landry.

While Bartlett does seem to get the boys away from Landry and his gang of churchgoing followers, something else happens. Bartlett wakes up the next day, his arm on fire from the sun as the rest of him lies on the Bowman porch. Bartlett does not remember what happened the night before, but Bartlett has to contend with a furious JV. Something had happened, and that something is youngest son Slap, described as being a “good” boy but not very bright, burning on the lawn in the sun, a noose around his neck. Slap is dead, and therein lies a real dilemma for vampires that wish to stay hidden.

The remainder of this first trade, covering the first six issues, covers the mystery of Slap’s death and why Bartlett cannot remember the night before. Though Bartlett is a notorious drunk, alcohol-induced amnesia is new to Bartlett. JV has other problems. Greg and Seamus are angry at Slap’s death, and as Bartlett reveals in his narration, vampires do not wear black when they are in mourning. Vampires wear red, as in the blood of humans. JV wants to avoid that by locking his sons in the basement until Seamus and Greg calm down.

As JV attempts to keep things calm, it falls to Bartlett and Perry to discover the real culprit behind Slap’s death. Grampa’s attempts to root through Bartlett’s mind causes Bartlett more trauma than answers. But Perry’s attempts bear more fruit as the youngest vampire and Bartlett travel through his memories, seeing how Bartlett turned, how the Landries learned of the vampire’s existence, and eventually finds out the culprit.

It is not, as suspected, Father Landry. Someone has actually changed Landry himself into a vampire. The culprit is someone much closer to home, and someone who could easily have altered Bartlett’s memories. Slap, it seems, had been killed by Grampa.

Much of the conflict of the story comes from vampires chafing at having to lie low. While flashbacks do not depict vampires lording openly over all but a handful of trusted retainers, the reader can also see that vampires have not been shy about feeding from humans either. As apex predators, vampires are used to wandering far afield to get what their much-needed sustenance. Confining themselves to a small farm, even with a steady income and a steady food supply, does not work in the long term no matter how smart an idea it may be. The younger male vampires are pushing to get off that farm, while Grampa in the attic does little but stew over the good old days of the past when a vampire could roam free across the countryside. Arguably, Bartlett’s drinking problem is just as much caused by this confinement as it is anything else. Grampa’s murder of Slap was done for the very reason of forcing the Bowmans, now with Father Landry as the newest potential member of the clan, to stop living so complacently and go back to the life of the predator.

There is a suggestion of rural flight in this. JV’s sons, Greg and Seamus, want off that farm. Bartlett actually only returned to the farm relatively recently after spending multiple decades traveling the world and seeing as much as he could. The farmhouse is destroyed at the end of the trade, so seeing how things end is going to force the Bartletts to engage in that rural flight. Greg and Seamus are getting what they wanted after all.

JV, on the other hand, represents the opposite view. The memory of his late wife Meredith, a woman described in the most glowing of tones by Bartlett, motivates JV to do everything he can to keep his family safe. Ultimately, Grampa’s machinations force the Bowmans to flee their farmhouse and go out into the wider world for the first time in decades. JV’s sorrow over the deaths of his wife son and fury against his father for what the older vampire has done are pure and righteous. JV may not be a creature of violence anymore. Instead, he does all he can, with Bartlett’s help, to keep that from happening.

This first trade collection ends with the Bowmans fleeing the police through a series of underground streams and caves, while Grampa attacks the police parked outside the farmhouse. Grampa, shot multiple times, wounded to begin with, and in full sunlight, may or may not still be alive to continue to live as a threat to both his family and humanity at large, but the Bowmans are left with an uncertain future.
Does the story tap in the sentiment of suspicion of authority, a cultural indicia of rural east Texas? When the Bowman sons get loose and attack Sulphur Springs the first time, they do not go after authority figures, unless Father Landry counts as one. They go after any and all humans. Grampa attacks the police in the end when they surround the farmhouse. The only human characters that get even a little bit of character development are Landry in the beginning and the family’s two retainers. Grampa attacks not to lash out against authority figures, but because he sees himself as an authority figure. Humans, all humans, are beneath vampires. Grampa thinks that JV is betraying his inherently superior nature by keeping the family hidden.

What is it about the American South that makes it such a desirable location for writers of horror? For many Southerners, you find “the South” in the countryside. However, Texas (the setting of this Redneck) is a bit different, and is also considered something of the frontier going back to the days of Westward expansion. Unlike the rest of the old Confederacy, Texas wasn’t part of the original thirteen colonies or the Louisiana Purchase. Texas was originally part of Mexico and the Mexican War was primarily started over a border dispute over where Texas ended and Mexico began. Texas is as much part of American western mythos. Redneck is set, for the first trade, in a small town and old farmhouse off in what looks like the middle of nowhere. JV looks like an overweight cowboy, and the Bowmans run a cattle ranch as their primary source of income. They sell the beef in a restaurant in town and live off the blood. (Your reviewer was once told by a friend that the big difference between Texas barbecue and barbecue from the rest of the South is in most of the South, barbecue means pork. In Texas, it means beef.)

As such, rather than look at the South as a whole, we should consider the importance of setting the series in Texas specifically. Texas is a state with a reputation for being larger than life, with large, wide-open expanses with little to see for miles. It is a place where community matters for many residents, where the local high school football team attracts the entire town for every home game. Texas has a big population, second in the nation only to California, and second in square mileage only to Alaska. But for all that, Texas is a very empty place in many areas. There is a lot of flat desert in Texas. Putting the Bowmans in Texas not only allows Mr Cates to take advantage of Texas culture, but it allows him to set them in a distant place with hardly any people, out of the way. That isolation is an intrinsic part of horror stories set in the South. Remote places seem to be better places for monsters and horror more broadly. Crowded places that have the aura of civilization have a different underpinning theme. While having a vampire resident in a big city like New York can work, it will take a different feel over a vampire in a small Texas town – particularly when the vampire is trying to hide.

Mr. Cates has created a compelling world of vampires attempting to both hide and survive in the modern world, fusing old stories and myths with new concepts and ideas on what it means to be a predator that purposely confines itself. A vampire’s nature will not allow itself to stay confined and live off the blood of cows any more than most humans would allow themselves to be confined to one spot willingly for long periods of time. Grampa’s actions may have put the Bowmans in danger, but at the same time, he may have given the family the impulse to get out and do more. That will lead to interesting times both for the Bowmans and for the reader looking for a new take on old folklore.