Mud, Myth, and Metaphor in Matt Phelan’s Storm in the Barn

Carl Jung once wrote that the “primitive mentality does not invent myths, it experiences them.” According to Jung, myths were not allegories created by early man to explain the universe, but allegories that could explain early man – and the man of today.

Matt Phelan’s graphic novella Storm in the Barn presents the “primitive” mind not in an ancient ancestor but in the mind of a child in the 1930s. The narrative follows Jack, a farmer’s son overwhelmed by feelings of impotency and purposelessness. On this level, the novella depicts the historical reality of the Kansas common folk struggling against the poverty of the Great Depression and the droughts and dust storms of the Dust Bowl. Jack, however, does not contextualize his experiences with scientific or economic explanation – the remedy of the adult, bringing knowledge but not hope – and instead through metaphor. His life is not the product of environmental crisis but a supernatural foe who’s stolen the rain and hidden it in a carpetbag. The result is not just a young boy’s explanation of where the weather has gone, but an examination of the nascent mythopoeiac process within his mind, and possibly ours.

Published in 2009, Storm in the Barn is a fairly recent print despite the appearance of its book cover, which looks like a forgotten children’s serial from the 30s. The design is complete with a generic “junior detective” holding a “torch” and sporting a newsboy cap, as well as lurking specter that evokes mystery and danger. I nearly passed over the dusty fable while I was snooping for comics in an used bookstore, and I only opened the book out of innate pickiness. Thinking it belonged on a shelf-full of Nancy Drew Mysteries, I checked to see if its pages contained panels or prose.

The artwork kept me. As I turned from page to page, I was mesmerized by Phelan’s hazy watercolors, both sleepy and vague, like a memory recalled or a dream put to page.

Phelan’s deliberate limitations in color and contour emphasizes the dust’s dominance over Jack’s world. Buildings and people are barely glimpsed through brown and orange hues, as if the dust particles are eroding away the borders and margins of existence. Towns and taverns are barely glimpsed, and the book’s cast has been bleached by the sun and sand into varying grays. Only a blue barn has retained its colors. The barn’s wall are indigo, an easy association with water, and its vertical lines reflect the downpour of rain. Red, also reserved, makes an alarming appearance in one of the story’s darkest beats.

In the book’s afterward, Phelan lists his influences: Donald Worster’s Dust Bowl, an American Experience documentary called “Surviving the Dust Bowl,” and the photography of Dorothea Lange, Arthur Rothstein, Walker Evans, and other photojournalists commissioned by either Agency or self-agency. Unlike Phelan, these influences created authenticity through accuracy. Their power came from scholarly and journalistic approaches – through interviews, diaries and crisp images of a grim, determined people.

Phelan pays homage with his stony-faced men, limited dialogue (much like the silence of a photo), and credible moments and characters. But his focus is not on the facts of living so much as the living itself – the mental and metaphorical experience of depression-ridden America. To this end, Storm in the Barn is able to rely on forms excluded by earlier sources: mythos, folk tale, allegory, dream and nightmare.

Not that there isn’t a realm of realism. For the most part, the adults do not believe in magic. Instead, theirs is a scientific and natural knowledge. In fond memories colored by pastels, Jack’s mother explains the transformation from “a paradise for my folks” to the grueling conditions of her day; she hints at overfarming, overgrazing, and other environmental factors. There’s a certain resonance here with the Garden of Eden; both places of prosperity brought to ruin by the ‘sins’ of the ancestor. Although this resonance is not specifically identified, it’s likely Jack’s mother would not immediately scoff at the allusion. But the hardened woman does not dawdle in religion. Hers is a ‘practical’ nature. Others, such as the town doctor, attribute wide-spread hallucinations to ‘dust dementia,’ explaining metaphorical encounters as mental illnesses. Jack’s sister, whose illness is inexplicably linked to the drought, isn’t suffering from a curse, isn’t a sleeping beauty, isn’t a modern Fisher King, but a little girl dying of ‘dust pneumonia.’

The book’s epigraph sheds some light on this clinical perspective:

“Every theory of the course of events in nature is necessarily based on some process of simplification of the phenomena and is to some extent therefore a fairy tale” (Sir Napier Shaw, Manual of Meteorology).

Therefore, the explanations are adult myths, or as Jung might put it, self-portraitures. And unfortunately, these myths are oppressive narratives which enforce the fragility and folly of man. Foolishness, selfishness, and short-sightedness led the early generations to blunder across a land once inhabited harmoniously by the Indian. Now, the rural American has fallen victim to his own misdeeds. Jack’s father sums up these feelings by claiming the land is “cursed;” a curse being a sort of supernatural punishment in response to transgression.  Although he might not consciously believe it, subconsciously he’s contributing to a rhetoric that’s eroding his manhood as the dust his farm. His only response is to survive – not live – survive.

Others respond in equally inadequate ways. Those experiencing ‘dust dementia’ have begun to worship the weather, specifically by nailing rattlesnakes to fences as pagan offerings. Others have found substitutes for their frustration. Jack is bullied by children also rendered lame by the drought, and later, a killing of rabbits turns into ritual frenzy. Some, like the Talbots, have migrated.

Jack, however, experiences the world through the only analytical lens he has available – stories that offer flickers of hope and power. Although his hero’s journey might only be illusions brought on by dementia, that doesn’t diminish their authenticity to him. By placing himself in the role of hero, Jack is able to confront ‘his inner demons,’ in this case, the power that the weather holds over him, navigate a death world ruled by adults, and achieve a manhood so-far denied.

The specific stories that assist this transition are Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz and old Appalachian legends called Jack Tales. The distance between the worlds of the child and the adult are contextualized by the realms of Kansas and Oz (which, I might add, are also divided by a life-destroying desert). Jack identifies with the Wizard: neither have a place in Kansas, and both of them wish to be special, to be recognized and to be important. It’s the Jack Tales, however, which empower Jack to act beyond his own physical and mental means. The folk hero encounters terrible authorities – a variety of kings – which he must outwit through tournaments, ambushes and trials. Jack, too, encounters an impossible foe – not the dust, but a creature made of rain which desires to make humankind bow down to him. Jack does not submit; he defeats the creature, and therefore, psychically, defeats the desire within him to become submissive and cowardly. The defeat, Phelan hints, might not entirely be in Jack’s mind, as moments later, it begins to rain.

Some readers might complain that this conclusion devolves into wish fulfillment, but I’d argue that that actually lends itself quite well to Phelan. In the end, Storm in the Barn does not privilege objective truth. Instead, the novella illustrates how man’s world must not be confined to one interpretation, especially if that interpretation strips him of dignity or freedom. Man is a storyteller, whether methodical or metaphorical, whether by the hero’s path or pathology, and his surroundings are reinterpreted by psychic impressions. Was the rain in the end real? Or was it only in Jack’s mind? In any case, real or symbolic, the rain signifies the uplifting of the curse and the end of Jack’s impotency. Jack’s coming-of-age manifests with his father’s recognition. At that moment, the rain is not condensed droplets, not liquid water, but a gift from the goddess, a baptism, a rite-of-passage complete.

Works Cited

Bettelheim, Bruno. The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. New York: Penguin Random House, 2010. Print.

Jung, Carl and C. Kerenyi. “The Psychology of the Child Archetype.” Essays on a Science of Mythology: The Myth of the Divine Child and the Mysteries of Eleusis. Princeton University Press: New Jersey, 1969. Print.

Phelan, Matt. The Storm in the Barn. Massachusetts: Candlewick Press, 2009. Print.


An interesting aside that I couldn’t find a natural place to put into my essay without breaking its flow – Phelan illustrates the Jack Tales with the aesthetics of Golden Age superhero comics, characterizing the folk hero specifically with Superman poses. Possibly, Phelan didn’t include Superman for copyright reasons, or because Action Comics #1 (1938) wouldn’t have come out until the following year. However, I believe there’s a certain intentional connection that Phelan is making between the protagonist and the reader. I’ll leave the heavy thinking to you as I’ve done enough for today.

Post-Post Script:

Many of these concepts reminded me of a certain Calvin & Hobbes strip, which I’ll post here out of a mixture of amusement and nostalgia:

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When Desmond White is not blogging out of both ends, he’s stunt doubling for a bear or actually doing his job -- teaching literature at a Texas high school. A loose definition of genius, Desmond’s goals in life include making yerba mate sound appetizing (“It’s grass... that you drink!”) and writing about comics. Check out his blog, which is dedicated to bad writing advice for the aspiring bad writer.

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