Tuesday, February 14, 2023

Refuge, Graphic Novel

The names of some places just promise too much, like Garden City. That is even more true of the town “Refuge.” It was founded as a community of freed slaves in the “Indian Territory” of Oklahoma, but it was never a very safe place to be, even before the ominous preacher arrives in Bill Campbell’s graphic novel Refuge, illustrated by Louis Netter, which goes on-sale today.

Sheriff Desi Leans is sort of the leader of Refuge, but it is a very decentralized community. Nevertheless, he brokers a truce with the Testimony Gang, a band of former Buffalo Soldiers that had formerly waged war against the Native tribes. However, their real leader is the loftily-named Prester John, a fire-and-brimstone minister in the tradition of Charles Laughton's 
Night of the Hunter.

Like it or not, there will be a war-waged for the soul of Refuge. There are those who believe in the values the town was founded on, but the underlying tensions between the former slaves and the tribes of the territory are too easy to exploit.

Refuge is an ambiguously weird western and a massively revisionist one that empties both barrels into the Manifest Destiny mythology of the frontier. That is all fine, but the narrative unfolds rather slowly, in a strangely talky fashion. This is particularly frustrating given the frequent difficulty in reading the lettering (at least as reflected in the digital gallery). The characters are also too thinly drawn. Readers will have trouble recalling any personal details about Leans or his deputy, Gay Day, beyond their immediate functions.

However, it is fascinating to see how Campbell brutally exposes the futility of utopian schemes. A town like Refuge is probably destined for doom (and maybe literally cursed). If not Prester John, somebody else would have lit the match. The conflict and wariness characterizing the town’s relations with the various local tribes is also fascinating. Everyone is hyper-aware how each tribe lined up during the Civil War—and not all of them were with the Union, against slavery.

There is a very thoughtful foundation to
Refuge, but a more rigorous editorial team should have wrung out some of the slack. Netter’s art is strikingly stark, but sometimes the visual representation of the action is a little confusing. There is a strong point of view and a good deal of creative promise, but the execution is flawed. Still, fans of westerns in the Django Unchained tradition should find plenty worth reading when Refuge goes on-sale today (2/14), wherever books and comics are sold.