Writer: Eric M. Esquivel / Artists: Ramon Villalobos and Tamra Bonvillain / Vertigo Comics
Hormones and Horrors
In pop culture, paranormal stories with adolescent protagonists conjure up a mental checklist of tropes. Familiarity can breed a wearying predictability. “Here are some teens, in a town with a sinister secret,” a typical summary of this genre might say. “Together, they’ll struggle through adolescence and against supernatural forces. ‘Hormones and Horrors’ premieres this fall! ”
Confronted with an echo chamber of similarity, the only way for genre stories to stand out is to be a statement rather than an imitation. Then again, that’s the risk; isn’t it? Tales about characters pulled between mysterious activity and pre-adulthood thrive because of their enduring theme: encountering something out of the ordinary in a time of societal pressure to fit in.
Conformity guarantees community. To define yourself, to be about something, risks isolation. So from the first panel of the first page to the final reveal of the issue, Border Town #1 knows exactly what it is. It is a risk, but in the broadening era of prestige television and long-form serialized narrative it’s also a gift not to be underestimated.
Devils In The Details
“The American Dream is dead. Viva the American Nightmare.”
Perhaps a lesser creative team might give cause for concern approaching such subject matter. By opening on a self-appointed white American border patrol on the hunt for migrants crossing from Mexico, even Border Town’s first words come out swinging. From the outset, however, the lineup of Eric M. Esquivel, Ramon Villalobos, and Tamra Bonvillain assure the reader they’re in good hands.
To put Villalobos among artists like Frank Quietly, Geof Darrow, or Paul Pope would be appropriate for his skill on display here. His figures carry a weight to their actions as they move through their world. In some cases, even the onomatopoeia expresses this — in the cursive-scrawled whiff of a missed punch, or forming the point of contact when a dropped gun clatters to the ground.
Simultaneously, Villalobos doesn’t sacrifice motion for the high level of detail in his artwork. Half the fun is hunting for what he’s smuggled into the visuals: one of the border militiamen bears an eerie similarity to a certain C. Kent, for example (by contrast, the place where the Superman logo DOES show up in the story is truly well-chosen). The cumulative effect in his comic panels is as though he simply opened a window between this reality and the next, leaning through to take pictures of the startled residents on the other side.
Colorist Tamra Bonvillain lights Villalobos’ pages in further service to the composite illusion that we’re looking in on a world adjacent to ours. ‘Lights’ is the operative word in what Bonvillain brings to the book. Her touch is dynamic but never distracting, the forms on each page given further depth through her palette. This is necessary for when the book takes its first of many gruesome turns.
The crossing of paths for la migra and a family on foot struggling across the border intersect at the darkest point of ‘what’ and ‘the f***’, where a creature dressed like Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s worst nightmare has been waiting on them. The warm haze of the following day dawns on a rental truck, obliviously passing the aftermath of carnage from the previous night. Inside the vehicle, half-Mexican teenager Francisco (though he prefers “Frank”) and his family head to their new home in Devil’s Fork, Arizona.
When his mother tries to cut the tension between Frank and her boyfriend by turning on the radio, Frank experiences some powerful weirdness that leaves him with a nosebleed. His first day at school doesn’t go much better. Despite starting on an act of kindness to fellow student Quinteh and fist-bumping a possible new friend, Frank is challenged to ‘prove you’re not racist’ by a pair of girls curious about ‘the new kid’.
Aimi & Julietta inform their classmate about Blake, and how the guy Frank just met is a notorious Neo-Nazi. Refuting their claim by loudly affirming his racial identity puts Frank in Blake’s crosshairs. All the while, the thing in the desert responsible for the opening slaughter draws ever closer to Devil’s Fork…
On The Line
There has been little mention of Eric M. Esquivel’s writing so far, and that’s because of its deceptively effortless presence. When the language calls attention to itself in confrontations, it absolutely means to do just that (letterer Deron Bennett’s shifting between English and Spanish for those who speak it in the story underscores this decision).
Otherwise, the earnest speed and ease to the characters’ interactions smoothly join Villalobos’ panels throughout the book. The world of Border Town seems less drawn and written than it was observed and recorded. Indeed, special props must be given to the line “the world’s shittiest centaur”. That quote, and the context in which it was used, will be part of the deciding factor for many on this series.
It absolutely bears repeating: Border Town is a story that knows what it’s about. To know yourself, to define who you are, is to set up a border of what you will and won’t tolerate. It can push people away, but a border is also just a line. Lines can meet, and intersect. What defines you can draw you towards a belonging greater than being rejected from conformity.
This is a comic that includes a chupacabra disguised as a cop getting taken down by a teenage luchador in a Superman t-shirt alongside an undocumented Afro-Latina immigrant with a gun. All that happens before an ancient Mexican God of Death enters to curse out the chupacabra for its failure. Odds are you already know what side of the line you’re on after sentences like that.
For those waiting to return to the Upside Down or left their hearts in Gravity Falls, find your way to Border Town. As is tradition in stories like these, there’s supernatural and man-made horror within the city limits of Devil’s Fork. As Frank and his (real) friends try to survive both, maybe you’ll find yourself here, too.
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