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Each week, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic book of significance. This week, it’s Redlands #3. Written by Jordie Bellaire (Injection, Pretty Deadly) with art by Vanesa R. Del Rey (Scarlet Witch, The Empty Man) and Bellaire, this issue adds a strong erotic element to the horror series as it introduces a major new character. This review reveals major plot points.

With Halloween approaching, it’s the time of the year when scary stories are the entertainment of choice. Image Comics’ Redlands has quickly become one of the most compelling new horror comics of 2017, following a trio of witches who brutally seize control of a rural Florida town from a corrupt police force. The first ongoing series written by two-time Eisner Award-winning colorist Jordie Bellaire, Redlands reveals that Bellaire’s scripting is as sharp as her artwork, and she’s crafted a series with artist Vanesa R. Del Rey that prioritizes a creepy atmosphere while gradually building up a cast of frightening characters with mysterious agendas and backgrounds.

Redlands first issue was a merciless razing of the city’s police department in 1977, kicking off the story with an exhilarating rush of action rather than plodding exposition. The next issue jumped 40 years in the future to show the witches now in control of the city, dealing with a serial killer who knows their supernatural secret. That second chapter shifted into a more traditional police procedural mode, except the cops engage in ritual sacrifice and writhe around naked as they make their regular offering to a higher being known only as “Father.” Bellaire still keeps the story very light on background information, which lends the central characters an intriguing mystique. They are defined by their behavior in the present, and while Bellaire offers hints regarding their long history, she doesn’t linger on what happened in the past. It makes the book much more active, and Bellaire trusts her readers to engage with the story without needing hand-holding.

Bellaire and Del Rey have worked together as an art team on books like Zero and Scarlet Witch, and coloring Del Rey has made Bellaire deeply aware of her collaborator’s major strengths as an artist. The first issue highlighted Del Rey’s ability to create tension on the page and break through that tension with dramatic, chilling moments of release, and as the series begins to explore the larger environment of Redlands, Del Rey taps into her skill for creating a distinct sense of place. One aspect of Del Rey’s talent that has been underutilized in most of her comics work is her interest in the erotic, and Del Rey’s Instagram is full of drawings depicting sexual gratification. The sacrifice in the last issue featured some erotic elements, but Redlands #3 goes much further with explicit sexual content.

The opening splash page of this week’s issue shows a man performing oral sex on a woman on the hood of a car, a visual that becomes very cheeky with the “Feast Day” caption, establishing that this issue takes place at the same time as the previous chapter while also providing a double entendre for the sex act. The cunnilingus is interrupted by the arrival of Laurent, a bounty hunter with his own connection to the supernatural and a complicated relationship with the lead witches, and the issue follows Laurent over the course of Feast Day, once again shifting focus to illuminate a new aspect of the narrative.

Laurent is in a romantic relationship with Bridget, a member of the series’ central trio, which adds affection to the story that wasn’t in the grisly, disquieting early issues. That affection is established through sex, and the couple wastes no time getting down once Bridget arrives at Laurent’s home and bends over the hood of her car, setting this sex scene up as a contrast to the one that opened the issue. While that first scene was all about the woman being aggressively pleasured, there’s much more romance and tenderness with Bridget and Laurent. There’s still plenty of passion, though, accentuated by a sequence of close-ups showing fingers on lips, hands clenching breasts, and an overhead shot of Laurent penetrating his lover.

The heat of this action cuts through the chilly blue that surrounds them, but there’s still something ominous about this moment. That sequence of close-ups ends with Bridget’s skeleton hood ornament swinging back and forth as they rock the car, zooming in with each swing until the noose around the skeleton’s neck comes into focus. This isn’t intercourse, but lovemaking, which is emphasized when the two of them profess their love for each other. But love can be a liability, compelling people to make foolhardy decisions when their partner is in jeopardy.

One of the most fascinating pages of this issue doesn’t feature any flashy storytelling, instead finding a way to put the reader in the head of the captured serial killer and subtly foreshadow future events. Laurent has tied up the man and thrown a blanket over him, but the reader doesn’t know that until later. Instead, this page is presented from the killer’s perspective, starting with a panel that is almost entirely dark except for thin bands of blue that show the limited visibility from under the blanket. The next panel shows Laurent on the phone leaving a message for Bridget, surrounded on all sides by darkness, followed by a similar panel showing Laurent’s small dog, which walks up to the blanket to inspect what is underneath. The page ends with a panel similar to the first, indicating that while the reader was able to see what was happening outside the blanket, the killer has been shrouded in darkness the entire time. The sequence presents important visual information, specifically the dog, which will play an important role in the issue’s climactic scene, but it does so while still reinforcing that the point-of-view character isn’t getting the same information. That’s a tricky thing to pull off.

The serial killer breaks free when Bridget unties him, which brings that whole love as liability thing to the forefront when Bridget is knocked into a swamp full of hungry alligators. Laurent dives into the water to save her, but luckily his canine companion is around to keep the killer from getting away, leaping into the air to take a bite out of the naked man’s dangling member. It’s a painful moment, particularly with the “munchmunchmunch” word balloon depicting the dog’s gnawing, and the man’s genitals are a bloody mess for the rest of the scene. Laurent transforms into a man/gator hybrid when he’s overcome by rage and decapitates the killer with his bare hands, and the last panel of the man alive is a disturbing mirror of the final moment in Laurent and Bridget’s sex scene. The naked man’s arms and legs are wrapped around Laurent, but it’s a moment of terror rather than pleasure.

Redlands uses backmatter to enrich the world of the series. Last month’s issue showcased Bellaire’s abstract painting skills by presenting the bloody paintings left behind by the serial killer, and this week’s issue features newspaper articles about Redlands’ “Gator Man” along with a tourism poster and illustrated instructions on how to field dress and skin a deer. The newspaper articles, written by Mallory Wyman and designed by Becca Carey, are especially illuminating, revealing the urban legend that has developed around Laurent. Readers are introduced to the human side of Laurent in this issue, but these articles establish him as a myth within the local community.

There’s remarkable specificity in the execution of Redlands, and readers who want to learn more about the series should seek out the second issue of PanelXPanel, a new digital magazine by Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou that dives deep into specific titles. The Redlands issue features a comprehensive interview with Bellaire and Del Rey and a variety of essays: letterer Clayton Cowles details his creative choices for the series; Tara Marie explores how women have historically been used in horror stories; Otsmane-Elhaou writes about the visuals in the first issue creating a sense of entrapment; and Deniz Camp delves into how Redlands plays with specific elements of the horror genre. There’s no publication in comics that is giving this kind of attention to a single book, and Otsmane-Elhaou is highlighting the artistry that goes into all elements of comic-book creation while also providing a platform for some of the industry’s most insightful critics. Fans of comic-book criticism need to check out this magazine, which has also spotlighted Black Mask Studios’ Beautiful Canvas, Image’s Savage Town, and, in this month’s issue, DC Comics’ smash hit Mister Miracle.

While on the topic of horror comics, it’s worth noting that on Saturday, October 28th, comic shops around the world will be participating in the fifth annual Halloween ComicFest, the fall version of Free Comic Book Day that has publishers releasing free copies of comics that lean toward horror. Image Comics isn’t participating in Halloween ComicFest, which is puzzling considering that it publishes the most popular horror comic, The Walking Dead. It’s a missed opportunity to bring new eyes to the many horror comics available at Image and its Shadowline, Skybound, and Top Cow imprints, and Image could have put The Walking Dead at the front of a horror sampler that featured excerpts from books like Redlands, Winnebago Graveyard, Hack/Slash, Wytches, The Magdalena, Spawn, Manifest Destiny, Redneck, Outcast, and Moonshine. There are so many horror books at Image Comics, and Halloween ComicFest would be the perfect time to show off the publisher’s wide range of stories within the genre.

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