John Kohler Sr. came out of Vietnam broken, wanting only to never again see so much suffering and despair. Rejected from post-war society, he and his friend Walt Gronski made a society of their own, and many other veterans who wished for a new life were invited to the newly-established town of Elk's Run. Through strict rules and deliberate isolation, they built themselves a paradise free of both want and unnecessary luxury.
But now a boy is dead, and the man who accidentally killed him has faced rougher justice than outside courts would provide. Policemen from outside are coming to investigate, and inside the town the veneer of perfection is starting to peel off. And the children of the veterans, led by John Kohler Jr., are starting to ask themselves a question—is it better to stay or to go?
Tropes in Elk's Run include:
- Arcadia: What the people of Elk's Run wanted.
- Uncanny Village: How it turned out.
- Art Shift: All flashbacks in and after the sixth issue (though not before) are drawn in simpler lines and lighter colors.
- Battle Amongst the Flames: Subverted. John Jr. rushes off to help save people from the fire, leaving John Sr. alone and abandoned.
- Berserk Button: Sara Kohler attempts to tell her husband that he's "not a monster." He bludgeons her for two pages and is about to strangle her before John Jr. interrupts them.
- Blast Out: John Jr. and Matt Jones versus four adults from town. The results could be described as "inconclusive"—someone accidentally shoots a container of napalm, and everyone has to run.
- Closed Circle: The entire town is surrounded by electrified fences. The only way out is via a tunnel through the mountainside—and that tunnel is easy to block off.
- Cavalry Betrayal: Jim Miller. To be fair, he's literally being held at gunpoint.
- Crazy Survivalist: Even before the police come, John Sr. seems a bit overly concerned about "the next war."
- The Social Darwinist: John Sr. ultimately espouses this viewpoint as he becomes more unhinged, refusing to save people who're trapped in the burning tunnel because he considers them unfit to live for the cowardice he says they showed in trying to flee the town. This is when his last remaining supporters give up on him.
- Deadly Prank: Well, it would have gone fine if Mr. Huld hadn't been drunk . . .
- Foreshadowing: By way of ironic remark. "Wake me when John blows the town up."
- Heal It with Fire: The unfortunately named Adam Smith suffers further over the course of the story—when he's shot in the stomach, John Jr. does his best to cauterize the wound, using explosive natural gas carefully contained by a miner's helmet.
- No-Holds-Barred Beatdown: John Jr. takes seven panels to bludgeon the life out of Nick Silva.
- Offing the Offspring: Set up a few times between the Johns, with the possibility of Self-Made Orphan as an alternative. Ultimately, neither kills the other. Directly, anyways.
- Only Sane Man: John Jr. is initially set up like this. Later issues match him with similarly sane friends Jones and Alyssa, and as events become more extreme the entire town slowly reaches sanity, one citizen after another, until only John Sr. is left alone with his failed dream.
- Pay Evil unto Evil: John Sr. phrases it as "an eye for an eye," but in practice it plays out like this.
- Police are Useless: Played straight when they're outnumbered by the gun-wielding townsfolk, but it's a major plot point that Conservation of Ninjutsu does not apply to them.
- Shell-Shocked Veteran: Any of the ex-soldiers, but John Sr. in particular.
- Shoot Out the Lock: Opens up the gate into the tunnel.
- The Stoic: John Sr. likes to think he's become this, though he tends to lose it when he loses control of the situation.
- Stuff Blowing Up: Napalm encounters a gas line.
- Unflinching Walk: The final panel, after a little time spent recovering emotionally.
- You Have Failed Me: John Sr. shoots Shane for not finding the radio the kids used to call in the police. He immediately blames the owner of the radio for forcing him to kill.