Nobody in the story believes him- or herself to be a bad person.
In a quiet, isolated town deep inside West Virginia coal mining country, children watch their parents commit unspeakable acts in the name of security and the common good. Isolation from the rest of the world, they are told, is necessary to preserve peace and order in their community.
Don't question what you see us do. Believe what we tell you to believe. Fear those who aren't from here. The town isn't controlled by a cartel of evil overlords, only by people absolutely certain that their ways are right and just as certain that opening the table to any discussion of alternate points of view is the road to ruin.
The town of Elk's Ridge, we learn, was founded by veterans who, upon returning from the war in Vietnam, simply wanted a place to live in harmony with their families and the surrounding countryside. There is one road in and out of town and it passes through a tunnel, part of an abandoned mine. Every so often the gate is opened to the world outside to bring in a semi-trailer truck load of supplies: food, textiles, building supplies, crates full of automatic weapons and ammunition.
The men of Elk's Ridge believe in being prepared.
John Kohler, the de facto leader of the town, lives with his wife, Sara, and their 16-year old son, also named John. The confrontation between father and son, between the elder John and the younger, is the heart of the tale.
After a drunk-driving accident claims the life of one of the town's children, John watches his father and the other men exact retribution on the driver. They drag him out of his house and hold an impromptu hearing in the darkness of the night. He pleads for his life. His wife recently ran off and he couldn't take the loneliness. The decision is Biblical: an eye for an eye is cited and the man is pinned down and crushed under the wheels of a car.
Life goes back to normal the next day, except that now teenage John and his friends have far more than the usual local gossip to busy themselves with. They understand that what has happened is deeply wrong but their parents are utterly complacent, unwilling to risk further disruption of their idyllic town life.
The unexpected arrival of two state troopers (contacted by the wife who escaped the town) during a routine delivery of supplies shatters the illusion of normality completely. "What, exactly, would you need with a crate of M-16s, Mr. Kohler?" is the question that gets both of the officers shot.
John, the son, and his friends are assigned the task of burying the bodies of the officers. The parents, as Sara announces, "have work to do." The teenagers obediently drag the bodies into the woods. Once they are far enough away from their parents, they consider that this might be a good time to, as the saying goes, get the hell out of Dodge.
That proves considerably easier said than done.
Elk's Run collects the original Harvey Award-nominated comic book series together with brand new material into a full-length graphic novel. Though critically acclaimed, the original comic book run of the series was never finished (the small press publisher bankrupted before the final issue ran). This trade paperback marks the first time that the complete story has been available to readers.
It's a powerful work with gripping, edgy art that directly addresses the isolationism, paranoia, division, and anxiety so prevalent in the United States today. It is a story that asks difficult questions, rapid-fire, about the tacit social contracts we make and the ability of people to overlook what they see happening right in front of their eyes.
Digital painting techniques have elevated the old four-color medium of comic book illustration to a whole new level in recent years and this is apparent throughout Elk's Run. The predominant colors of the pages shift with the mood of each scene. The illustration style varies from stark to sketchy in more ominous scenes to cartoon-like when the teenagers fleeing the town remember scenes from their childhoods. From start to finish, though, it is both beautiful and visceral.
It is worth mentioning that nobody in the story believes him- or herself to be a bad person. John, the father, sees himself as a good patriot protecting his family and his way of life. Sara sees herself as a loyal wife, allowing her husband to lead, confident that he knows what he's doing and will handle the situation. The bad stuff -- murder, lies, the stockpiling of explosive devices -- just weaves through a complex fabric of mixed motivations, denial, and parent-child dynamics, leading inevitably to tragedy.