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Friday, March 22, 2013

Blacklung. Chris Wright (Writer & Artist). Fantagraphics Books (2012).

Interesting and ultimately unsuccessful pirate story. A teacher and a violent gangster find themselves kidnapped and taken on board a pirate ship where the gangster joins the crew and the teacher becomes a scribe for the captain. The captain is trying to commit as much evil as possible so that he is sure of joining his wife in hell while his crew, including a homicidal maniac, are along for the blood, cruelty and treasure. The story unfurls steadily and finally ends, some of the cast survive, some do not.
The structure of the story up to the point everyone is on board the ship is interesting and unexpected. The story of the gangster is told through the actions of others as friends and enemies talk about him and plot against him. It is an interesting way to introduce him, before he is a significant presence before he actually appears and so when he does he already has menace and weight. Unfortunately he is then quickly moved to a context where he is not the most dangerous person in the place, which is what he was being set up as, he cannot capitalise on the set up he was given.
The teacher on the other hand is the central character of his introduction, emotionally constipated and severely dutiful about his pupils, caring for them only as far as teaching them within the confines of the school and timetable are concerned he is deeply unsympathetic.
It would be possible to anticipate a story that followed a development of the characters of the teacher and the gangster as they are faced with the deliberate brutality and cruelty of the pirate ship, something that revealed more of who they are. Instead the story effectively comes to a halt on the ship and the balance of the book is a slow set of non-sequiters as the captain, the first mate, the homicidal maniac and others talk, maim, kill and die. The two main action set pieces are well staged but appear to be straining to mean more than just being action. It is not at all clear what the extra dimension might be as Chris Wright does not actually commit himself that far beyond the captain's mission to secure a route to hell. The story ends rather than concludes in any way.
The strikingly individual black and white art adds and subtracts from the book. Chris Wright has a very strong style, it is not at all naturalistic, the cast look a lot like hand made puppets rather than humans and while this makes the horrific violence easier to read it also distances the reader from the story. It is hard to engage with the cast, the physical cues that would normally come from body language and facial expressions are blurred by the artistic choices. At particularly at a critical point in the story where the captain is telling of what has lead to his choices the page design becomes difficult to read, if I had sufficient interest in the cast or story this would not have been a problem. As it was I was no longer willing to put in the effort to decode the pages and simply moved over them.
This is a comic that a reader will completely get or will not, I can recognise the talent in the writing and the art without every being engaged by it.

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