The Guns of Shadow Valley is tremendous, plain and simple. The deft blend of western, supernatural, and science fiction staples and surprises is sure to delight fans of all three genres, and the different genres may even win some new converts thanks to creators Dave Wachter and James Andrew Clark’s twisting tale of redemption, revenge, power, and purpose in the old west. Starting off small and mysterious, the story and its characters grow larger in scale and depth with each issue, and, before you know it, you are in the middle of a complex and rousing epic.
I first discovered Wachter when I reviewed Breath of Bones: A Tale of the Golem, written by Steve Niles and with art by Wachter. Here, he not only provides the art but also co-writes alongside long-time friend and collaborator Clark, and the results are phenomenal. They build a rich cast full of hidden pasts and veiled motivations that you may think you understand until you realize you actually don’t know anything, or at least not nearly everything, about these guarded characters, be they hero, anti-hero, or villain. Many of them harbor secrets, fears, or talents, and their choices are defined not only by their present, but also their past, and their beliefs. Because of this, you can never be sure how a particular character will react in a given situation, which makes for a very compelling and exciting read. The story reveals itself slowly, unfolding its mysteries and mysticism issue by issue, consistently adding new layers to the plot and characters, everything coalescing into a dangerous and expansive world.
Wachter uses a wide palette of colors, from glorious orange and red sunsets to murky blacks and greens for the ill-begotten valley, to dusty browns and tans for the town of Malice. The valley is a place of fear and death, and we feel the presence of the dark secrets and scarred past because the landscape is stifling and oppressive, even as it stretches out into an expansive empty, gray nothingness, the whole valley shrouded in shadow. The backgrounds are an artistic feat, breathing a sense of real place into each location. The Wild West has never looked so resplendent and menacing, invoking a shared sense of wonder and fear. Thomas Mauer, the excellent letterer from Monkeybrain Comics’ Knuckleheads, helps the action stand out with his bright, bold sound effects. His lettering brings a weight to the storytelling, especially in the retelling of a native legend that imbues Guns with a mythic scale that works its way into the framework of the story, and elevates the stakes more than you ever could have imagined.
The Guns of Shadow Valley is a western, but also so much more. Rife with gun-toting action and adventure, it delves into magic and science fiction in exciting and unexpected ways, and the story is an undeniable page turner. The hardcover from Dark Horse collects the entire web comic, and there is a wonderful afterword by Wachter that charts the long and arduous journey of Guns from genesis to publication. Detailed character biographies round out the book and along with the afterword, provide just a glimpse of the time, talent, drive, and imagination that Wachter and Clark poured into this story over the years. The Guns of Shadow Valley contains elements of dramatic tension, emotional depth, and pure pulp fiction, and under Wachter and Clark’s creative guidance these all converge beautifully in Shadow Valley, a desolate place that is as intriguing as it is terrifying.