The best kind of stories can creep up on you when you least expect it, which is what I found when I came across Eric Powell’s Hillbilly: Volume 1. Powell is best known for creating The Goon comics and after reading Hillbilly, I can say he’s one hell of a writer. The graphic novel focuses on Rondel, a supernatural wanderer in the Appalachian wilderness who battles monsters, witches and demons. It’s part western, part fantasy and a damn good read.
Hillbilly starts with a boy strawberry picking in the woods. A witch puts a spell on him and is about to drag the boy off when a stranger carrying a large cleaver kills her. The boy and the stranger trade stories and Powell cleverly provides an origin tale for his protagonist. Rondel was born without eyes and he and his mother were ostracized by the local community.
During a hunting trip with his friend Esther, Rondel was separated from her by a wild boar. Rondel comes across a witch called Mamie and set her free from a trap that was created by her rival Eldora. As a reward, Mamie gives Rondel the Devil’s Cleaver, a supernatural weapon that can kill magical creatures. Mamie also gave Rondel sight by carving eye holes into his face. When Rondel returned home, he found it destroyed and Mamie took advantage, urging him to use the Devil’s Clever to kill Eldora. Realising he’d be used as a pawn, Rondel killed Mamie and set out on a mission to destroy all witches.
This tale sets the tone for the rest of the graphic novel, which has the feeling of a short story collection. Every story is separate, with Rondel being at the centre of them. In one tale, Rondel takes it upon himself to lift a curse from a young woman. He tracks down the route of an ancient tree and frees the spirit trapped inside it. It turned out the curse was the cause of a witch’s disciple who wanted to take the young woman’s dowry for herself.
Another yarn involves Rondel resting in a town and having to fight the spirit of a cursed fiddle. Rondel destroys the spirit with the Devil’s Cleaver, but he becomes more determined to stay away from civilisation because he feels he only brings trouble.
Rondel is a strong, sympathetic protagonist who reminded me of Geralt of Rivia. Both are loners and hunters of the supernatural. There’s also a great supporting cast in Lucille, a talking grizzly bear and Rondel’s childhood friend, Esther. All of them are misfits who’ve formed a surrogate family together.
The world of Hillbilly is very detailed and shows the darker side of human nature. Some monsters are shown as sympathetic, whereas some humans demonstrate monstrous qualities. Powell’s dialogue is appropriate for the time period and never sounds corny.
The art has a minimalistic quality, with many panels coloured grey. This adds to the old-timey vibe of the graphic novel and makes it stand out even more.
Hillbilly: Volume 1 is about the power of stories and how a legend can grow through word of mouth. If you’re a fan of The Witcher series then you’ll find plenty to love about this graphic novel. You can buy it now on Amazon.