In a way, Eric Powell is almost a Mike Mignola v2.0: the scope of his imagination is limitless, and he applies it to a hybrid genre to devastating effect. Think about his work on the Goon - it's gangster drama meets comedy meets horror, all with the unfiltered vision of the writer/artist Powell. Big Man Plans, on which he shared duties with Tim Weisch, was a violent dwarfsploitation piece with elements of thriller/suspense. Now he's turned his pen towards a fantasy realm of hill folk, witches, and magic.
This is also Powell's return to his own publishing imprint, Albatross Funnybooks, with this being the flagship book, and thank Christ for that: this book is incredible.
Powell's art has evolved over time to a fantastic zenith - he uses muted earth tones as his colors to set an environmental backdrop (similarly to his Goon work), and makes sure the tone is set from the very first page:
From there it's full steam ahead, and it's a relentless march packed full of foreshadowing, compelling backstory, and a character who is as emotionally ripe as he is intimidating: the Hillbilly himself. I'm going to put up his initial appearance, full page, so you get the heft of what this book is about.
Powell is a gotdammed wizard. Using a first issue to give backstory is nothing new, but the way Powell delivers that exposition is creative and engaging - after rescuing a small boy from the clutches of a backwoods witch, the Hillbilly and the boy exchange stories to pass the time. The boy first tells a story of the Iron Child, of which we the reader don't know if this is something that has happened or will happen, but you can bet your sweet patoot it'll come up again.
After that we get the Hillbilly's tale, which is rife with tragedy: an unwed mother gives birth to an eyeless child. The tale unfolds with lost friends, lost family, and a destiny overtaken by hate and pain.
The conclusion of the story leads to a reveal many readers may have seen coming, that the boy who cried black tears is now the man who wields Satan's cleaver, and the panel is just so heartbreakingly subtle. The extent of Powell's artistry is on this panel is devastating: Rondel's sadness shows through the black tears, the wild hair, the bushy beard, and it's reflected in light of the small connection he shared with the child he rescued.
As good as the art in this premiere issue is, Powell's writing is just as good if not better. His descriptors are on point, his Appalachian dialect is more true-life than hokey caricature, and the overall composition of the narrative is just beautiful.
This is a glorious way to restart Alabatross Funnybooks - Hillbilly is a table-setter of epic proportions, with art as haunting and touching as the story itself. You can really sense how invested Eric Powell is in his creation, and if the next 11 issues can keep that passion burning hot, then readers are in for a hell of a treat.