Writer: Christopher Condon Artist/Letterer: Jacob Phillips Color Assists: Pip Martin Publisher: Image Comics Publication Date: January 2023
Can a place be truly Evil, like with a capital “E?” And if it is, is there anything worthwhile to do to try and combat it, or is it all just futile in the end? These are some of the questions about Ambrose County, Texas that creators Chris Condon and Jacob Phillips have been asking since That Texas Blood launched back in 2020 and continue to ask with the release of volume three of the book earlier this year.
Volume three collects issues 14-19 of the Image series, and we rejoin newly-appointed and facing re-election, Sheriff Joe Bob Coates. I’m often told by my parents and anyone else older than me about a blizzard that struck the greater Philadelphia area and suburbs in 1996, the year after I was born. Now, the only thing worse I can think of than my hometown being completely shut down by the snowstorm of the century, is the addition of a notorious serial killer who decided that moment was the best time to hunt more victims. If it wasn’t clear already, that is exactly what Joe Bob is up against in this volume: The Red Queen Killer has made their way to Ambrose County at the worst time possible, both personally for Joe Bob and literally for the county.
Something to admire about That Texas Blood is its sort of an anthology, allowing for each volume to read alone, but also enjoyed when read together so the reader can see longstanding threads pay off. Each volume of the series tells a thrilling story set in the questionable Ambrose County, and volume three is no different in how it stacks up to the already-exceptional first two volumes. Alone, volume three tells a story about the efforts to stop a slasher killer before they hurt someone else as the heroes also battle the elements, making it harder to save lives. But together with the other volumes, we receive information that has only been hinted at since first being introduced to Ambrose County. Included is the revelation of what happened to the county’s previous sheriff teased in Joe Bob’s nightmares in the very first issue, by way of a press leak during the local election for sheriff. With that information out there, Joe Bob finds himself questioning every move he makes at a time when the people he’s responsible for protecting need him most, despite some supporting his opposition.
If everything about the story so far makes Ambrose County seem even worse than before, than the art and colors from Phillips with color assists from Pip Martin will solidify this arc as one of the more terrifying pieces of comics work in recent memory. Phillips’ layouts on the page contribute to the constant building of tension from panel to panel. When something is meant to be happening fast, you can feel it on the page as such. And when the opposite occurs for the slow build and creeping feeling of dread, you can feel your own pulse increase with that of the characters on the page. Paired with how each page is colored, the story reads as a slasher horror film. We know something terrible is about to happen to the lone character appearing in the small amount of light used while surrounded by black nothingness, but we don’t when that terrible thing will occur. Will it be the next panel? Next page? Or is nothing going to happen at all, and we are just left uneasy until the next time? Some of my favorite panels and pages of this story happen near the end, and without going too heavy into spoilers, they take place outside at night in this terrible snowstorm I’ve been talking about. The way Phillips illustrates the action has everything flow in a way you can easily see amid the snowfall. It’s dark, but dark in a way that you can feel the fear and isolation of the characters experiencing it, not simply the lack of light.
Since it’s debut, That Texas Blood has stood out for its uniqueness in setting, characters, and genre. While the three current arcs of the series centered around crimes in this god-forsaken Texas county, I wouldn’t count it as exclusively crime fiction or noir alone. Instead, the series has well earned its place among other works like The Lonesome Dove and No Country for Old Men as essential works of Texas Noir. When noir comes to mind, you probably get the common stuff: dirty cities, sprawling criminal conspiracies, a deeply flawed main character of questionable intent, etc.
Emily Martin describes Texas Noir as all those aspects of regular noir, only applied to small towns in rural areas. Texas Noir is set in these tiny rural communities where everyone knows everyone else but still manages to keep their dark secrets to themselves. Law enforcement in these small-town communities is corrupt, and the danger waiting for you in the dark alley isn’t often some drifter, but someone you’ve known all your life. Despite being a newfound pillar of this noir subgenre, That Texas Blood still carries the DNA of other genres like that of the western. You have good vs. evil, the winds of change/modernity knocking at the gates, and the representatives of justice doing all they can to hold back the things that wish the people harm.
Volume three of That Texas Blood feels like a culmination (though I pray it isn’t!) of what Condon and Phillips set out to do back in 2020. Can a place truly be rotten and corrupt? This is the third account (second chronologically) as far as we know about something horrible occurring in Ambrose County. Did the events of volume two really open the door for evil to make the county its home? Here we see horrors from outside being attracted and drawn in to wreak havoc in the form of the Red Queen Killer. What does it say though about the people living there who are able to persevere through and end the evils? What does it say further when these terrible things keep happening despite the “heroes” best efforts to combat them? If it feels hopeless, then I believe that’s the point.
And that’s where Joe Bob comes in. The main character of this book stands as this beacon of light and hope that the people flock to in a time of need. He’s the old west lawman of contemporary times meant to keep the peace while protecting and serving his people. He’s a constant in the face of change and crucible like the storm and RQK, all while dealing with his own guilt and the pressures of the election for sheriff. He puts that aside to do what he believes his job to be: protect people.
Today, law enforcement and police spending are a subject rightfully under scrutiny. What we see on the pages here is not what others often experience in the real world with the interactions with cops. Joe Bob is different. He is meant to be a leader in the community that he serves while looking for justice, or just doing the right thing. Whether it be getting rid of a snake for an elderly neighbor, or rescuing a little girl from a satanic cult, Joe Bob is seen constantly putting the needs of others above his own. He’s an idea. He does what he does because it’s right. It’s that Texas blood that drives him.
This is an excellent series. I read it via trade paperbacks. Throw the superheroes away, take your time and enjoy!
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