Telling Tales with Eric Powell

Intrinsic to the makeup of a community are the stories they tell. Each community has tales specific to them, drawn from the places, people and dangers unique to the tellers. These stories help define the beliefs of those within and the lessons that parents want their children to learn. We call these stories folklore and,  by reading them, we gain valuable insight into the people who tell them. After all, we are the stories that we tell.

While all tales are inimitable to their region of origin, and are entertaining reads in their own right, the tales that sprung from the Appalachian region are noted for their supernatural and horror bent. This might be due to the isolation they experienced from living in the mountains. But as modern life pervades more and more into these isolated regions, the folktales begin to lose their luster. That is why it is imperative that someone revitalize these tales and ensure that their essence does not fade from history. Luckily, we have Eric Powell to continue to breathe life into the great tradition of Appalachian folklore in his phenomenal series, Hillbilly.  While his stories may not correlate directly to the tales told in Appalachian folklore, it is in the style and tone that Powell’s series honors this region’s legacy.

Hillbilly, written and drawn by Powell, is published through his independent publishing company, Albatross Exploding Funny Books. The protagonist of this series is a character, called The Hillbilly, but whose real name is Rondel. Rondel was born without eyes, but was “gifted” with sight by a foul witch. The first vision that little Rondel sees is his home destroyed. Rondel is then given the devil’s cleaver by the witch in order for him to kill the witch who destroyed his home and who just happens to be the sworn enemy of the first witch. Upon receiving the cleaver, Rondel decides to kill the witch who gave him sight and vowed to kill all witches. It is an exciting a fun premise that allows for the entertaining and dark humored tales that Powell has become known for from his work on The Goon.

Powell is one of those rare auteurs who is both a highly skilled artist and a writer. I wondered how his approach to writing a comic in which he both writes and pencils, is different to one in which he is only responsible for one those duties.

“When I write for myself I do it in a shorthand kind of way,” he responded. “I know the beats I want to hit and the page layout so my scripts are pretty much just dialogue with a few descriptives. When I write for someone else it’s a full script.”

One much-beloved character that appears in Hillbilly is the Buzzard. The Buzzard’s first appearance occurred within the pages of The Goon, which is the title that Powell may be best known for, but has, currently, been put to rest by Powell. I wondered if the inclusion of The Buzzard may mean that Rondel exists within the same comic world as The Goon.

“Depends on the reader’s view,” he hedged. “In the Goon books Buzzard was left in a very ambiguous place. His embodiment as death had him walking through worlds. So, Rondel’s world may have been one of many he visited.”

So Rondel and The Goon may or may not occupy the same world, but they are at least tied to the same multiverse. I think the mere inclusion of Buzzard in these books is enough to get fans extremely excited about the future implications of this.

Rondel seems motivated by his vengeance against the witches, but I wanted to know if there were underlying motivations that drove this character. Powell was quick to correct me about the nature of Rondel’s motivations.

“I believe Rondel is driven more out of trying to do right and help people than vengeance,” he replied. “The witches in this world are wicked and bent on corrupting mankind. I believe Rondel sees his mother as just one of the many victims and wants to spare others the pain he went through.”

It adds to Rondel’s heroic quality to know that his motives are far more just than mere vengeance. This creates interesting philosophical questions since the tools that Rondel is using to kill these witches are evil in their origin. His eyes and the devil’s clever were given to him to kill another witch. So, can someone use the tools of evil for good without repercussions or is there an eventual cost?

According to Powell, “The point is not the tool but the purpose you use it for.”

One of the hallmarks of an Eric Powell book are the inventive creatures that inhabit his bizarre worlds. What inspired him to create the creatures/adversaries that Hillbilly fights?

“I try to do a mix of natural and fantasy creatures,” he said. “But I also try to give the real animals a fantasy angle. Like saber-toothed bears.”

And what are Powell’s plans for future issues of Hillbilly?

“We are building towards the bigger picture that is hinted at in the first few issues. By the time we get closer to the end of this 12-issue run, it will start to unfold.”

And of course, the question everyone wants asked, will there be more Goon?

“We’ll see.”