I didn’t know what to expect when I started reading Killadelphia, Rodney Barnes and Jason Shawn Alexander’s new comic. I had been a fan of Barnes’ work on the second season of American Gods so I was eager to take a dive into some of his other work. Killadelphia looked really interesting because I love a good vampire story and it seemed like Barnes had a unique take on the genre – and boy did he ever. Killadelphia might just be the best comic I’ve read all year. It’s this perfect blend of absurd-yet-scary horror and gritty, grounded, realistic drama. In many ways, it feels old fashioned and reminiscent of film noir, but in other ways it feels startlingly modern and poignant. (Five out of five wands.)
(NOTE: This review may contain spoilers. Read at your own risk.)
Killadelphia, vol. 1: Sins of the Father (written by Rodney Barnes, illustrated by Jason Shawn Alexander)
When small-town beat cop Jimmy Sangster returns to his Philadelphia roots to bury his murdered father, he stumbles into a mystery that will lead him down a path of horrors and shake his beliefs to their core. The city that was once the symbol of liberty and freedom has fallen prey to corruption, poverty, unemployment, brutality…and vampires.
There’s a reason they say you can’t go home again. Welcome to Killadelphia.
At first glance, Killadelphia might seem like a pretty standard mystery. In the wake of his father’s death, Jimmy returns to his hometown and ends up trying to solve one of his father’s unsolved cases. Of course, that investigation leads him down a slippery slope that ends in vampires. As often happens in stories of this ilk, Barnes uses this simple setup as a way of easing the reader into the story. He starts us with the story of Jimmy’s fractured relationship with his father and we immediately understand why he’d be compelled to continue one of his dad’s old cases. And because we understand that, we’re invested in Jimmy on a personal level and are completely willing to follow him into these dark and weird corners. It’s really effective and it’s nice to have moments to get to know the main characters of something like this before you really put them through the ringer. And it’s a rare thing to see in most mainstream comics, so I’m really glad Barnes spent the time to establish the world of Killadelphia and ground us in character drama before thrusting us into the supernatural.
But, of course, everything hits the fan pretty quickly and the comic gets really weird really fast – in the best way possible. In my opinion, all of the best vampire stories have something silly about them. I mean there’s just something super melodramatic about vampires; they’re dark, brooding, and kind of ridiculous yet somehow still scary. Killadelphia definitely adheres to this trend. I mean, the villain is literally John Adams, who had been a vampire for over two-hundred years, and that’s a really silly idea. But it also really works. It’s interesting seeing how this American founding father got from where he was in the early 1800s to this melodramatic villain trying to take over the world (including some genuinely funny gags at Hamilton – both the person and the musical). Equally interesting is seeing Adams as the leader of a cult trying to change the fabric of America – by basically upholding the status quo and just changing who’s in charge. If that’s not an indictment of certain aspects of American politics, I don’t know what is. And, somehow, Barnes manages to make all of this feel truly frightening. There’s a genuine danger being posed by Adams and you can really feel how important it is for him to be defeated. It’s a remarkable feat and it’s so much fun to read, even if it is a little silly.
However, once you get past the inherent absurdism of seeing a founding father as a vampire, it’s easy to pick up on what Barnes is actually doing with this comic. While revolving around vampires, Killadelphia is less a story about them and more a story about humanity’s past and its future. The idea of fractured relationships (particularly between parents and their children) is one frequently touched upon. Jimmy and has father have this palpably real relationship. There is love between them but there is also bitterness. It feels real in an almost painful way. It’s one of those deeply relatable things that instantly connects you to a story. Some of my favorite scenes were between the two of them, especially towards the latter half of the comic. I’ll always wish comics had more time for moments like these, but I’m so glad Barnes found a way to include them as they’re honestly the heart and soul of the comic.
Also important is the idea of freedom. What makes a person free? Is it freedom from poverty, freedom from oppression, freedom to live one’s own life? Has American ever been free for everyone or are do those in power always try to control those who lack power? All of these questions give Killadelphia a kind of thematic heft that’s often missing from other supernatural fare and these ideas are explored thoroughly in these issues, particularly in scenes between Adams and some of the vampires he commands. While I initially came to the comic for the vampires, I stayed for these meaty ideas because it’s in these moments that the comic feels grounded and relatable. None of us can relate to what it’s like to be a vampire, but all of us can relate to the very real problems Barnes explores throughout the comic. At the end of the day, Killadelphia is this delightful mix of melodramatic horror and gritty character drama and I loved every page of it.
Every good comic is a combination of great writing and great artwork and Killadelphia is no exception. While Barnes’ script is already pretty stellar, Alexander’s artwork breathes life into Barnes’ world. While the script luxuriates in some of the more fantastic elements, the artwork really leans into the gritty reality of the story. Alexander depicts Philadelphia as this dark, gritty city – almost like something out of a film noir. The whole thing just drips with atmosphere. It’s a dark comic, visually and thematically, and Alexander does a lot of work with light and shadows – which feels wholly appropriate given the whole vampire thing. Speaking of the vampires, Alexander walks this really interesting line between depicting them as monsters and depicting them as humans. There are some vampires who still have their humanity, and he takes careful steps to ensure that’s depicted, but there are other times where he leans into the more traditionally monstrous side of things. Overall, it’s a really beautiful comic and Alexander’s artwork elevates the script without detracting or distracting from the story being told. It’s some good stuff.
All in all, Killadelphia is a compelling read from start to finish. It’s a brilliant mixture of tones, combining traditional vampire melodrama with the grittier tones of familial drama. It aims a magnifying glass both at America’s history and at its present, examining our flaws and our potential. It’s one of those comics that entertains you while also making you think. The artwork is gorgeous and moody and adds a lot of atmosphere to the story without distracting from what’s going on. At the end of the day, I cannot recommend Killadelphia enough. It’s one of those comics that everyone will be talking about – and rightfully so. Now’s the best time to hop on the train, because a new arc is about to start and you’ll want to be there for it.
5 out of 5 wands.