Rob Guillory’s Farmhand classifies itself as dystopian/horror/humor, but it’s the Southern Gothic exploration of family and secrets that really drew me in. After a seven year run as co-creator and artist of the award-winning dystopian horror comic Chew, Guillory decided to return to his writing roots, pulling double-duty for his new series. In his blog, Guillory talks about the image of a tree growing limbs popping into his head and how in developing the idea he landed on a Black farmer because it wasn’t a story that’s been told. In most narratives, a Black man in a field is a story about slavery; Guillory makes his central farmer a Black man dressed in classic bib overalls but driving a cutting-edge agricultural marvel. Guillory revels in wordplay frequently in Farmhand, for both comedic and poignant effect. So “farmhand” refers to Zeke Jenkins, the son and hero of the story whose father, Jedidiah, has created a new combination of farming and medicine that allows for organs and limbs to be grown on a farm. It also stands for the symbol of the Jenkins Family Farmaceutical Institute, a hand sprouting a seedling in place of a thumb, and the greenhouse full of trees growing full arms. Lastly it’s a reminder that the person you likely picture when you think of a farmhand is limited by stereotypes. Guillory flips common conceptions with several characters in Farmhand, including Zeke’s wounded army vet sister Andy, bioengineer Dr. Monica Thorne, and Tree, a hulking ex-pro football player turned pastor.

Currently comprised of three paperback volumes or 15 single issues, Farmhand follows unemployed writer Zeke as he relocates his wife and children to Freetown, Louisiana, the rural town he grew up in. He reconnects with his estranged father Jed, whose medical agribusiness has invigorated and corrupted the town. A mysterious vision turned Jed from a mediocre commercial farmer to the inventor of the Jedidiah Seed, which functions as human stem cells that can be cultivated like plants. While transplantation of limbs and organs has become cheap and easy with his new technology, there are signs that the seed has started invading the flora and fauna of Freetown. Worse, strange new growths and psychological afflictions have manifested in patients who received previous transplants. Zeke struggles with becoming entrenched in the troubles surrounding his father’s farm while still letting his young kids get to know their grandfather. Andy works side-by-side with her father, leading the company and farm security. Dr. Monica Thorne, the woman who helped Jed develop the seed, has emerged from obscurity to run for Mayor of Freetown and reopen old wounds in the Jenkins family. Festering under everything are decades of secrets and lies, the unearthing of which drives the characters as much as the spiraling medical-eco disaster.

The series unfolds slowly, with Vol. 1: Reap What Was Sown laying the groundwork by developing the main characters, the town, and the farm. Vol. 2: Thorne in the Flesh focuses on the farm’s response to the plagued Transplants converging on the town and the outbreak of the seed. Vol. 3: Roots of All Evil digs into the villainous plot overtaking the story. Guillory anticipates a final length of 24 to 30 issues and it’s clear he’s taking his time building and revealing complex characters and plot lines. It’s hard to go into much detail without providing spoilers—even naming the villain gives away part of vol. 1. There are plenty of action sequences, including fighting spies from foreign companies and defeating veiny, bulging diseased animals. Mostly, it’s not the action that moves the story forward and it’s by no means action-packed. The slower pace pays off with well-developed characters who have emotional depth and realistic interactions, despite the phantasmagoric setting. There’s a lot of humor and pathos in moments between Zeke and his wife Mae. The sibling bond between Andy and Zeke is a keen balance of trauma-forged camaraderie and quick-rise anger. Jed and Dr. Thorne are multifaceted older characters that are frequently lacking in comics.

The themes in the story are deftly handled. The unknown origin of Jed’s seminal vision creates a shaky foundation for examining faith in the story that is just starting to come to a head by the end of vol. 3. The role of racism is in an undercurrent of tension in the first two volumes. When Andy is menaced by an over-entitled farmer’s son in a bar, his attacks are laced with racial undertones. The third volume tackles the subject head on with the origin of the town and ancestral tragedy. One of the things that makes the story really get under your skin is that the Jedidiah Seed and farm is the only part of Farmhand that is dystopic, the rest of the world appears to be the same as our contemporary one.

I feel like I’ve painted a fairly dark and serious portrait of the series so far, but really it’s full of wry humor and zaniness. The art is cartoonish and shows the body horror and grotesque elements with a combination of whimsy and teeth. The characters’ faces are full of emotion and their body language is animated with dynamic energy. There’s a lush quality to the color and lines of the art that feels different from Guillory’s previous work on Chew. While some may find the stylized art off-putting compared to more realistic art styles, I think it’s the perfect campy counterpoint to the substantial story.

Farmhand earns its Mature rating through gory violence and horror, with no sex, no full nudity and little language. Fans of comics Bitter Root, Chew, Black Hole and the works of Joe Hill will find much to sink their teeth into, as will fans of Stranger Things, David Cronenberg, and Michael Crichton. This comic belongs in every adult graphic novel collection.

Farmhand, vols. 1-3
By Rob Guillory
Art by Taylor Wells
Vol. 1 ISBN: 9781534309852
Vol. 2 ISBN: 9781534313323
Vol. 3 ISBN: 9781534315907
Image, 2019-2020
Publisher Age Rating: Mature
Series Reading Order

Title Details and Representation
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult
Character Traits: Black, Missing Limb
Creator Highlights: Black

  • Sunny

    | She/Her Youth Services Librarian

    Sunny is a Youth Services Librarian in Fairfax, Virginia, running storytimes, tween tech programs and 3d printing clinics – and even the odd animal program. When she was in her late teens, a half-dozen kind spirits bestowed upon her their beloved comics, steeping her in ‘80s and ‘90s superhero canon, Sandman, Strangers in Paradise, Love and Rockets, JTHM, Gregory, and more indie comics than you can shake a stick at. From these humble origins grew great powers that she's honed for decades, as she is now tasked with purchasing graphic novels for her system. Outside of the library, she works on her side hustle editing audiobooks (a job that actually predates her library career by almost a decade) and reviews audiobooks for AudioFile magazine. Somewhere in there, she's raising a 7-year-old daughter who loves DC Super Hero Girls and Bone. She also wishes she had more time for messing about in boats or knitting or crafting or baking or blogging her library work or visiting craft breweries and cideries with her mom, waiting for the best coincidence of food trucks. She's equally aided and hindered in her quests by the antics of her faithful sidekicks: a barky but sweet mutt named Fiver and a cuddly, vicious gray tabby named Monkey.

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