Every two weeks, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic book of significance.
This week, it is Farmhand #4. Written and drawn by Rob Guillory (Chew, WWE) with colors by Taylor Wells (Chew, WWE), this issue adds new layers to the twisty sci-fi horror comedy. Note: This review reveals major plot points.
All too often, cartoonish comic book art is dismissed as childish and frivolous. Exaggerated visuals are assumed to lack seriousness or dramatic depth, but the work of Rob Guillory is a prime example of why these assumptions are wrong. Yes, there’s an inherent sense of humor in Guillory’s art, but he’s shown time and again that he can navigate complex emotional territory in books like Chew and his current Image Comics series, Farmhand. That humor ultimately works in favor of darker story elements, helping readers get comfortable in the world of a book and connect with characters before awful things happen to them.
Creating an inviting atmosphere helps Guillory sell the high concepts of his titles. In the case of Chew, written by John Layman, the cartoon aesthetic makes it easier to swallow a story about a cannibal cop, which would be far more disturbing with a realistic visual style. Farmhand is Guillory’s first series as both writer and artist—with colors by Taylor Wells and letters by Kody Chamberlain—and it rivals Chew in fundamental strangeness. Jedidiah Jenkins is a farmer who one day mysteriously gains the scientific know-how to create a seed that grows human body parts. Limbs grow on trees, noses blossom on bushes, and internal organs sprout from the ground. The greenery latches on to the human flesh and fully assimilates with the body. This medical breakthrough has made the Jenkins Family Farm a hot spot for international espionage and ground zero for the spread of a frightening, unpredictable natural force.
Mankind has treated this planet like garbage, and nature has a tendency to evolve in order to survive. After last week’s Intergovernmental Panel On Climate Change report warning of an impending environmental catastrophe if drastic measures aren’t taken to combat climate change, Farmland’s concept gains a new dimension as a horror story about nature finding a way to thrive by latching onto its destroyers. The hit survival horror video game The Last Of Us and the recent Black Mask comic The Wilds both feature infections with botanical and fungal elements that plunge the world into dystopia, and Farmhand feels like it’s at the top of that downward slope. The seed is spreading, and its existence has destabilized the already rocky relations between the United States and foreign powers that want to get their hands on Jedidiah’s creation.
Farmhand debuted with one of the year’s best first issues, giving readers a Willy Wonka-esque tour of the Jenkins Family Farm as it delved into the strained relationship between Jedidiah and his son, Zeke. The opening sequence—which is available online—kicks off the story on an intense horror note with a nightmare that highlights how well Guillory and Wells use the visual signifiers of farming for creepy imagery. After shooting a bobcat that gets into their chicken coop, Zeke sees his father’s eye peeking out from beneath the soil, surrounded by bloody dead chickens. Guillory’s chilling depiction of this moment establishes early on that the animated art style doesn’t diminish the scares, but imbues those scenes with vitality and a sense of urgency.
Once the nightmare ends, Farmhand switches into a lighter mode, with Wells varying his palette with bright shades that accentuate the wonder and splendor of the farm. The tone jumps around a lot, but that’s a big reason why this book is so much fun. That first issue begins with horror, and as it continues, it introduces a complicated family dynamic, sci-fi elements rooted in real-life research and experiments, and secret agent intrigue. The story has expanded in scope with its ensuing chapters, as local politics come into play and Guillory reveals more about the history of his cast. In four issues, he’s woven a tangled web of personal conflicts and secret alliances.
But Guillory doesn’t take himself too seriously. He recognizes the absurdity of Farmhand’s concept and leans into it by structuring jokes and gags around the plants. When a security guard is berated for falling asleep on the job, Guillory jumps back to show past incidents with this employee: “The Arm Tree Pruning Accident,” where he cut off another staff member’s arm instead of an arm branch, and “The Pharmaceutical Limb Bender,” where he got high by sucking on a psychedelic mushroom hand. Guillory is a big fan of visual puns and sight gags. By giving himself room to be silly, he gives Farmhand a playful quality that sets it apart from most horror books.
Missing parts are an important element of this series’ plot, but the Jenkins family can’t replace what it’s lost. The death of Jedidiah’s wife, and the mother of his children, lingers heavily on the characters, with reminders of the past adding an undercurrent of melancholy to the narrative. Early in Farmhand #4, Jedidiah’s daughter, Andrea, sees a small tomato trellis on the farm, summoning flashbacks to happier, more innocent times when she would pick the flowers around the plants and bring them to her mother.
The emotional storytelling here is crystal clear, starting with the panel of Andrea looking forlornly at the trellis. The trails of overgrown grass add a jagged visual element to the page that disappears when Amanda remembers the past in a smooth sepia-toned image that radiates familial affection. The composition of that image is repeated for the final panel of Andrea walking away, but the grass has grown to cover up the heart on the side of the watering can. The flowers are still there, but now they are a painful reminder of what she has lost.
Zeke and Andrea are on the outs after Zeke’s kids were attacked by a giant monster chihuahua mutated by the farm, but this issue reinforces the connection between the two siblings with a sequence that unites them through mirrored compositions. When Zeke goes out to shoot the coyotes on his land, Andrea is ambushed by a group of men with a grudge against her family, two separate events that are presented at the same time with alternating panels. The cool blue of Zeke’s panels contrasts with the warmer shades of Andrea’s, the palette informing each sibling’s attitude: Zeke is apprehensive about the violence he’s about to commit, while Andrea, a former Army sergeant, is alert, angry, and ready to bust some heads.
As the men surround Andrea, the coyotes begin to circle Zeke, and Guillory pulls each panel in closer to build suspense before the siblings take their shots. Layering on a frantic monologue from Andrea’s main harasser makes the page feel even more cramped, creating a greater sense of release when Andrea jabs him in the nose, streams of blood exploding outward. Directly underneath, her brother shoots a coyote in the head. While the circumstances are very different, both images show the sibling taking action to protect something that belongs to the family. For Zeke, it’s property. For Andrea, it’s reputation.
That scene ends with the emergence of a different threat, as the fallen coyote and Andrea’s attacker are taken over by the plant infection, a foreboding final note that turns the siblings’ separate opponents into a shared enemy. Zeke and Andrea might not see eye-to-eye right now, but eventually they’ll have to put aside their differences and join forces to stop the savage seed that threatens not only their loved ones, but all of humanity.