Norton Sinclair is an anxious, reclusive young man who has a delusional obsession with trash. He regularly visits a therapist about his habit of collecting nails and small pieces of wood in the city's refuse, and about his drawing of an ominous "Black Barn" that only he can see.
Father Fred is a troubled priest who has been assigned to a parish in the remote, rustic town of Gideon Falls, after the previous priest mysteriously disappeared. After he receives a vision of the priest, whose dead body is found soon after, Fred starts to investigate the mysteries of the town.
Mind Screw ensues.
Warning: Due to the disconnected narrative structure, it gets very hard to talk about the series past the first volume without spoiling major plot points. Spoilers for the first four volumes (through issue 16) may be unmarked. Proceed with caution.
- Alien Geometries: The inside of the Black Barn is this, on a really bad acid trip.
- Alternate Universe: The two protagonists reside in these. The Pentoculus allows Bishop Burke to visit many other versions of Gideon Falls, including The Wild West, Steampunk, and Big Brother Is Watching versions.
- Amnesiac Hero: Norton is one, not remembering much of his life before age 9.
- Animal Motif: Cockroaches represent the Eldritch Horror at the center of the Black Barn.
- Black Woman Dies First: Gene Tremblay is found dead at the end of the first chapter, kicking off the plot.
- Benevolent Conspiracy: It is hinted at early on that Bishop Burke sent Father Fred to Gideon Falls to fulfill a more ominous role than originally described. As the bishop is actually from the 1800s and was the first to discover the Pentoculus and the nefarious power behind the Black Barn, he has worked since to stand against it behind the scenes.
- Booby Trap: Norton does this to his apartment after it gets ransacked. When Dr. Xu comes to check in on him, he warns her not to touch the doorknob or she'll get electrocuted.
- Body Surf: The Man Who Smiles in the Dark uses this to manifest outside of the Barn.
- Eldritch Location: The Black Barn, a mysterious building which exudes an evil aura and appears across different realities.
- Gideon Falls itself, which has been the scene of numerous murders going back centuries thanks to the influence of the Black Barn.
- Fish out of Temporal Water: Bishop Burke was flung forward 70 years after the Pentoculus sent him on a dimension-spanning chase for the Man Who Smiles in the Dark.
- Lost Lenore: Rebecca, one of Father Fred's old parishioners in Colorado. The two carried out an extramarital affair until Rebecca's husband found out, causing her to commit suicide and turning Father Fred into the vagrant alcoholic he is today.
- Masculine Girl, Feminine Boy: As children, Clara was a foul-mouthed tomboy who would beat up anyone who tried to hurt her shy younger brother Danny. His disappearance only caused her to become more stoic and bitter.
- Nun Too Holy: Downplayed with Father Fred. He has drinking and assault and adultery under his belt, but he's genuinely penintent for his sins and wants to leave them in the past.
- One Steve Limit: Averted: there are two Norton Sinclairs. Played straight again when one of them is revealed to be really named Danny Sutton.
- Painting the Medium: Similar to Jeff Lemire's other work (and his previous collaborations with Andrea Sorrentino), each issue plays around with panel layouts in order to convey the chaotic states of minds of the characters, or when they're in proximity to the Black Barn.
- Red boxes are used to surround scenes of violence.
- Taken Up to Eleven in issue 21 when Clara blows up the Black Barn, causing the comic to fragment and be absorbed into some void.
- Room Full of Crazy: Norton's apartment has a bookcase full of jars containing items he's collected in the trash. Doc Sutton's walls are littered with newspaper clippings related to the Black Barn.
- Sir Swears-a-Lot: Clara, even as a child.
- Slasher Smile: The hallmark of the Man Who Smiles in the Dark, devoid of lips and with red teeth.
- Splash Page
- Town with a Dark Secret: Despite seeming to be a quiet little town, Gideon Falls has a long history of tragedy and murder, which all involve the recurring appearance of a mysterious black barn.
- Wham Shot:
- Issue #6: A signpost in the final panel shows that the city Norton and Dr. Xu live in is also Gideon Falls.
- Issue #16: Doc's Slasher Smile shows he's been possessed by the Man Who Smiles in the Dark.