Image's Middlewest Is a Heartbreaking Reflection on Growing Up with Emotional Abuse

Abel staring down the wind monster that won’t leave him alone.
Image: Jorge Corona, Jean-Francois Beaulieu (Image Comics)

Image’s Middlewest, from writer Skottie Young and artists Jorge Corona and Jean-Francois Beaulieu, is the sort of comic book that sits differently with you depending on what your childhood was like. For some, it’s a story about a young boy discovering the hidden magic woven into the place he’s always called home, while for others, it’s something much more grounded, terrible, and mundane.

Abel, the comic’s hero, is kid from the Middlewest, a magical place where slick-tongued foxes occasionally speak and the wind is known to whip itself into terrifying furies that send people running for their storm cellars. Like most kids his age, Abel sometimes loses himself to flights of fancy and lives for the moments when he can run free through the grass, getting lost with his friends in the wild excitement that comes along with being young and carefree.

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But, like many people, Abel also lives with a kind of internal emotional darkness that’s difficult to put into words and even more difficult to wrap his mind around in ways that make sense. Before the events of Middlewest, Abel’s mother walked out for reasons that aren’t spelled out in the comic’s first issue, and her absence is something that manifests itself in the tense relationship Abel has with his father. The spark of wonder and joy that exists within Abel’s heart is something that’s been long-snuffed out in his father, and in its place is a coldness that speaks to years of misplaced anger and resentment. Both Abel and his father are people living with deep-seated sadness within them, but for the older man, that feeling’s warped into an ever-simmering rage that’s always threatening to spill out and damage what’s left of their love for one another.

Abel and his father.
Image: Jorge Corona, Jean-Francois Beaulieu (Image Comics)

There’s pain at the heart of Middlewest that’s bigger than the fights Abel has with his dad, though that’s a very important part of their dynamic. Abel’s father is rough and physical with his child, often using his larger size to threaten and intimidate the boy whenever he’s caught breaking rules or getting into trouble. But the terror that Abel feels when he sets foot into his home stems from what isn’t said or explained. He doesn’t understand why his father is the way he is or how he became that way because that kind of emotional vulnerability and openness is something that the two of them haven’t had in recent years.

The subtext to the scenes where Abel’s father looms over his son like a vicious sadist ready to attack is that, on some level, the man is dealing with demons of his own. Abuse from his own past, the pain of being left by his wife, uncertainty about how to be a good father—all the sorts of things that, when bottled up inside and left unaddressed, can metastasize like all-consuming cancer that transforms people into versions of themselves they don’t recognize. But Abel’s being a kid with no one else to really look up to makes it impossible for him to understand that. How could a child ever hope to be able to see into the depths of their parent’s own struggles with trauma to make sense of the dysfunctional relationship developing between them?

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Abel is, however, a sensitive kid who has the beginnings of an idea about his family’s predicament buried deep in his psyche, which is where Middlewest’s magical realism truly begins to come to the fore in a way that’s bother beautiful and tragic. All of the rage and loneliness and hurt that Abel lives with and that emanates from his father is given a physical form as a gargantuan monster made of tornadoes that’s hellbent on chasing Abel down, which is what sets him on the epic adventure that kicks Middlewest off.

Abel being chased by the storm.
Image: Jorge Corona, Jean-Francois Beaulieu (Image Comics)
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Each time you read one of Middlewest’s pages, another element of the story’s grander poetry rises to the surface. It’s a story about a boy coping with emotional abuse, but it’s also about Abel’s fear that, deep down inside, he might not be as unlike his father as he cares to believe.

When the storm is raging around Abel, you can feel that sense of hopelessness and dread that comes from knowing that you have to live with someone—something—that doesn’t know how to exist if it isn’t being violent and destructive. It’s a monster with a form you can’t touch, even though it can touch you (and hurt you). It’s something whose existence you can’t explain in detail, but at the same time, you can’t deny it’s real, either.

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You can feel what it’s like to be caught in a maelstrom of thoughts and feelings that both are yours and aren’t, but are too enmeshed with one another that it’s difficult for you to decouple them. You also feel, though, that small part of yourself that’s the last to let go before fully giving in to the darkness—the part of you where your dreams and the will to survive live.

Abel might not yet know how to battle the emotional demon(s) he’s destined to face, but he does still have that fire within him that keeps him moving forward and lets him dream his dreams.

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About the author

Charles Pulliam-Moore

io9 Culture Critic and Staff Writer. Cyclops was right.