Following Chew, Rob Guillory Cultivates New Horrific Ground in Farmhand
July 12, 2018
A Bible verse from the New Testament famously warns “for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.” In Rob Guillory’s new series Farmhand, that venerable adage takes on sinister, bloody implications.
The new horror title follows Zeke Jenkins, a husband and father of two children who returns to his family farm, run by his estranged father and sister. But Jenkins Family Farmaceutical Institute’s cash crop isn’t corn or tomatoes; the lab specializes in cultivating human body parts and organs, genetically grown from stem cells and harvested with the normalcy of autumn apple picking. From that premise, the comic grows into a tale of fathers attempting to provide for their families and a science fiction body farm that harbors its own gruesome secrets beyond its appendage orchards.
A fixture at the forefront of the Image Comics revolution as co-creator and artist of the critically acclaimed Chew, Guillory makes his Image Comics debut as a writer with Farmhand, in addition to handling art duties. “It’s been the most terrifying transition ever. Before Chew, I wrote most of my own stories, but that took a backseat while I was juggling the monthly art duties on 60-plus issues of that book,” Guillory explains. “But I always intended to return to writing, so this has been really fulfilling for me. It’s also been somewhat daunting to shoulder the weight of a book, but I’ve been spending the last year getting ahead, stockpiling scripts, and fine-tuning this story. It feels like my very first comic, even after eight years of Chew.”
Beyond art and writing duties, the creator has poured himself into the narrative, adding a degree of intimacy rooted in his devotion as a husband and father. “I have a wife and three young kids, so that’s where my heart is. I’m constantly amazed at the complexities of having a family,” Guillory says. “[It’s about] the fears that come with that kind of responsibility, and the very frightening reality that there actually are evils in the world that would seek to destroy something so precious. It just made sense to combine family with horror. What’s scarier than the idea of evil coming for the ones you love?”
The debut issue opens with Zeke and his wife, Mae, driving their two children, Riley and Abby, to see their grandfather, Jedidiah, following an unspecified number of years. Zeke warns Mae that he’s “waiting for the other shoe to drop” and to budget for their kids’ therapy, hinting at a rocky past to be unraveled in upcoming issues. “Zeke looks at his father and sees him as the primary source of his woes, and he’s not completely wrong,” Guillory says. “He’s reconciling with his father after many years of estrangement, so there’s a part of him that wants to forgive and move forward.”
While Farmhand isn’t heavy-handed, it circumvents many of the overt comedy tropes found in Guillory’s Chew collaboration with writer John Layman, which starred a detective who could absorb information from eating evidence that ranged from everyday objects to cadavers. Guillory crafts a tale that leans heavily into the macabre, complemented by a pervading sense of dread as Zeke is drawn deeper into the grotesque family business. “Finding the right tone for Farmhand was absolutely the hardest part of making it. I knew that I wanted to go darker than I had before, but I also wanted to have the freedom to incorporate comedy,” Guillory says. “Ultimately, I wanted to make a comic that was fun at its core. I didn’t want it to be a boring, melodramatic, or depressing comic, but I also didn’t want it to be nearly as wacky as Chew was. I think if Chew and Locke & Key had a baby, it would be similar in tone to Farmhand. There’s drama, humor, and fun, but with a very foreboding darkness over the whole story.”
Even with an increased focus on body horror and agrarian doom, Guillory shrugs off the suggestion that Farmhand is a big departure from his previous efforts. “It honestly wasn’t that big of a change for me. Chew had some pretty horrific moments, but I always wanted to play around with something that has a darker, less goofy undercurrent. I wanted something with a bigger, more foreboding threat, so that naturally led me to the genre.”
Guillory’s signature lush environments and expressive characters pop off the page, with the writer-artist joined by fellow Chew alumna Taylor Wells on colors. The pair offers a visual continuity while giving the book its own unique visual DNA; the imagery dives into an agricultural empire that looks as if Doctor Frankenstein has taken over Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. “Taylor began as my color assistant on Chew, and over the course of 40-plus issues, I watched her grow into a phenomenally talented artist in her own right.”
Kody Chamberlain rounds out the creative team, managing the series’ lettering and logo design. “Kody’s been my studiomate for over a decade, and aside from being a super-talented comic creator, he’s also one of the best graphic designers I’ve ever met. So snagging him to do my logo design and lettering was a no-brainer. Another fun fact: Taylor, Kody, and myself are all residents of south Louisiana, where Farmhand takes place.”
While Guillory’s new story superbly captures a creeping sense of dread and builds upon layers of tension, he’s not particularly interested in groundless terror. “I was the poor kid who was exposed to Hellraiser, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre by the age of seven, so I have a healthy respect for the genre. At the same time, I’m really not interested in horror just for the sake of scaring the crap out of people. I’m interested in horror as a tool to tell a story about the human condition, really. That’s Farmhand at its core.”
Guillory channels that intimacy in the journey of a man who can’t escape his family, no matter how weird (or devious) they can be, exerting a gravitational pull that threatens to consume not only his life, but those of his children and wife as well. That vulnerability propels Guillory as a calculated, candid storyteller, delivering a tale that only he could tell in one hell of a debut. Unsettling without losing any buoyancy or fun, the new series is a rollercoaster that strikes the perfect balance between personal conflict and gonzo horror, and beyond—the first chapter lies out myriad plot threads, ranging from celestial visions to corporate espionage and leafy appendages, giving a terrifying new context to the phrase “green thumb.”
But the horror runs deeper than the fleshy roots of trees and bushes, each bearing their own strange fruit. As Guillory muses over his new blood-soaked yarn, he thinks back on his younger days, when he worked in agriculture. “I spent a lot of my youth working odd jobs as an amateur gardener, and there was always something very romantic about getting my hands in the soil, putting something into it, then seeing what came out. Not to mention the surprise when what sprouts up isn’t quite what you expected.”
Farmhand #1 is out now.