Briggs Land, written by Brian Wood with art by Mack Chater and colors by Lee Loughridge and Jeremy Colwell takes some of our most treasured ideas of what it means to be an American, flips them over and examines the seedy underbelly of our land of the free. The story is set in and around the above-mentioned Briggs Land, a twisted Hundred Acre Wood located in the backwoods of New York, where the Briggs family run a secessionist and anti-government movement that in modern times has turned to drugs, violence and crime to support themselves and their way of life (think hillbilly Sopranos). The patriarch of the family, Jim Briggs, has been in jail for decades for attempting to assassinate the President, where his moral convictions have begun to wane and he is seeking a deal with the government for release in return for selling the land out from under his family and their many followers. Grace, his wife, discovers this plot and begins to make moves to wrest control both of the land and the larger criminal empire away from him, and that is where the story actually begins. There was a dream that was Briggs Land, a place where men, women and their families could live simple, free lives away from the squalor and decadence of modern American society and Grace still believes in that dream. She will be forced to contend with the ugly realities of racism, sexism, violence and hate in order to return her land and family to a way of life that probably never actually existed.
Brian Wood has an uncanny knack for creating stories that almost literally could not feel timelier (DMZ, Scalped) and this book is no exception. It would have felt well placed even if Hillary Clinton had won, what with the past decade of political strife and government discontent stepping to the fore of our country’s consciousness, but with Trump’s victory, it only feels more so. Lucky for us, he’s also a really good writer and has a real skill for laying out the complexities of almost any kind of person or situation. As a moderately progressive kind of guy, the people that make up this book are easy for me to hate if they are not presented and fleshed out in the right way. And while some of them really are monsters, Jim Briggs and oldest son Caleb for example, others are a bit more complicated.
Grace Briggs, the main character so far, especially comes off as a truly fascinating protagonist and is one of the best reasons to stick with the book. Married into this world as a young teenager, she doesn’t know any other way of life and seems to genuinely believe in the greater thing that Briggs Land might be able to be. She is likable, strong and complicated in a way that is very compelling. Besides her smart and possibly good character (in a crime story kind of way), Wood adds little things to her that flesh out her character and sense of humanity. She reads romance novels, she fixes fence lines on her land, and she genuinely cares for those who are under her protection, especially the women. Grace is a woman who has lived a complicated, maybe even damned life for decades and has finally found the will to do something about it.
The art here is really well done and complements Wood’s writing. Mack Chater has a nice, mildly gritty style that goes extremely well with the subject matter of this book. You can see the worry lines on characters faces and the tole that this kind of lifestyle has inflicted on them. With few exceptions, characters emote well and express what is going on in the story just as well as the dialogue does. Upstate, small town New York is represented well and fleshed out nicely; trailer parks have a good look to them, and the roads and nearby small town give a really nice background to the story; I don’t know if Wood chose this location for a specific reason, but it all looks nice and helps develop a strong sense of place. He also draws trucks and cars really well, which is an underrated skill that not every comic book artist can do well.
In some ways, the coloring in this book is very good and in some ways, it’s kind of brilliant. The coloring team is not afraid to soak a whole page in one or two colors in a semi-monochromatic way that really sets the mood. There are many scenes set at night, and instead of just making things dark with points of light pushing back at the darkness, we might get the whole page awash in a light green, or a perfectly chosen shade of purple. It’s kind of subtle until you notice it and then it informs so much about each page, even ones with a more conventional color scheme. It’s a really nice touch that helps tell the story in a way that colorists don’t always get to.
There is a lot of subtext to this book, especially in right now, early in Trump’s presidency. Sexism, racism, crime, government, immigrants, Nazis, it’s all there. But the one thing I want to talk about really quick is representation. Early in the book Grace and one of her sons have to go into the village where their followers (tenants?) live in order to find a man who might have tried to kill her. They talk to his wife, who is not allowed to wears shoes because of her husband’s backwards view of the world. Nobody in power ever did anything about this because all the people in power were men. It takes Grace, a woman, to see some of the subtler things that are going on, to do something constructive about it. The issue makes this difference all the more obvious with a flashback to a similar situation where Grace’s husband handled the situation in a blunt way that damaged everybody involved, instead of just the man who was at fault. Women and children in his world were just added baggage and not worthy enough to be dealt with in a direct or empathetic way. But the mere fact that Grace is a woman allows her, forces her more like, to see more of what’s going on. It’s a small moment that I really enjoyed and added to the story in a small but not insignificant way. Representation gets a bad rap sometimes, but it is undeniable that by just being different kinds of people, from gender to race to religion to height to ability, we all see the world in a different way and Briggs Land does that really well.
Briggs Land might not be for everybody, in part due to what’s going on this country right now, but if you are up for it, it is a great story with a ton of potential going forward. I enjoyed the American crime family aspect of it, as well as some of the intricacies for some of the characters and several of the smaller moments that bind the overall story together. This book is a deeply American tale that will resonate and disturb you all at the same time. Go read it.