Continuing our focus on books that I scored at Autoptic 2018 a couple Sundays back, this week we’re going to take a look at the first four issues or Robert Sergel’s six-part Bald Knobber mini-comics series, which I will duly “spoil” the final verdict on right now : these impressed the hell out of me. Why? Let’s find out —
Welcome to the book report from hell! In Bald Knobber #1, we meet our protagonist, a kid from BF, Missouri named Cole who, at first glance, doesn’t seem too terribly different from any number of alienated/disaffected youths populating the pages of, say, a million and one Charles Forsman comics — on his best day he seems like another so-called “incel” waiting to happen, on his worst he seems like the type who might shoot up the school. On this day, however, he’s been compelled to share his summer reading with the rest of the class, and the book that he chose to immerse himself in over his vacation was a history of the (you may have already guessed) Bald Knobbers, a dubious (to put it kindly) gang of Reconstruction-era vigilantes who took it upon themselves to police the lawless Ozarks with their faces covered, like a Ku Klux Klan minus the racism but complete with the “Midnight Rides” and what have you. Unbeknownst to his schoolmates, though, Cole’s taken the “lessons” offered by these masked madmen to heart and has gone about the business of putting to rights his troubled family situation (mom and dad are split up, mom’s new boyfriend’s a douche, dad’s a lush, the usual). Illustrated in a starkly clean black-and-white style that reminds me more than a bit of Jeff Nicholson and that carries an undercurrent of clinical, detached menace in every line by dint of its sheer utilitarian functionality, this first issue ends on an oblique-but-disturbing cliffhanger that will leave you salivating with dread for the next installment.
You were right to be worried! Bald Knobber #2 sees Cole up the ante considerably, as he begins to don a makeshift outfit based on his historical idols and finds a frightening sense of power and confidence in the anonymity his new mask and “uniform” provide. First target : a kid burning ants with a magnifying glass who insults Cole’s mother. Next : her deadbeat garage-mechanic boyfriend. Shit is escalating very quickly here.
Sergel pulls an inverse on his B&W logo scheme for the cover of Bald Knobber #3, but otherwise he’s sticking with his plan of ramping up the tension in a major way with each “chapter” of his story. This time out : Cole is forced to apologize to mom’s new fella, who makes a half-assed attempt at bonding with the kid by, what else? Teaching him how to shoot. Yup, you saw that coming — but what you didn’t see coming was Cole’s house burning down at the end of this issue. While he’s a good distance off. Meaning he didn’t do it. Go figure.
How’s this for a shitty situation with an even shittier outcome? Cole and his mom, with nowhere else to go, move in with her loser boyfriend in Bald Knobber #4, and while they get “closer than ever,” our “hero” is forced to crash on the couch and finds himself slipping further and further down the rabbit-hole of isolation and anti-social ideation and behavior. Whoever set that damn fire is going to pay — and fortunately for Cole, his amateur sleuthing leads to the discovery of a clue (a clue, it should be said, that’s right outta John Carpenter’s Halloween) literally laying around in the bushes outside the charred remains of his former home. He follows this solitary lead, of course, and what — or should that be who — he finds at the other end will leave you speechless. If you thought things were getting bad before, rest assured, it looks like they’re about to get much worse.
Next week we’ll take a look at the final two issues of Bald Knobber, as well as diving into a couple of other Robert Sergel comics, so as not to disrupt our theme and all. In the meantime, any and/or all of these minis can be ordered for two bucks apiece from Sergel’s Storenvy site or, if you prefer, the whole story is available in one go thanks to a newly-released collected edition published by Secret Acres, which is also available from the cartoonist himself. Here’s a handy link to all his wares : http://robertsergel.storenvy.com/