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A review a day: Fluorescent Black

It’s about time I finished up my 2010 comics, isn’t it?

Before we begin, I want to point out again how big this confounded book is (plus the color on the cover doesn’t transfer well – it’s actually bright pink, as you can see below, and not purple). Thanks to my excellent assistant Norah Burgas, here’s some context:

Here she is holding the book - it was almost too heavy for her!


Here she is with the volume and a regular-sized trade paperback - notice the difference, and let's give her a big hand!

Anyway, let’s move on!

It’s not a secret that I have a bunch of books to read and review, even though technically I suppose I don’t have to review any of them. But I get behind very easily on my reading of comics, especially when I try to write decent reviews for them and that takes a bit of time – recently someone compared a review of mine to a “grade school book report,” which I took somewhat personally (and it was a positive review, to boot) because I do put some thought into these. But that’s neither here nor there – if I allowed people criticizing me to stop me from writing on this blog, I wouldn’t have made it past my first few posts (remember when I wrote about how much I hated Owly? Good times!). My point is that I do put some time into writing these reviews, and I try very hard to read and write about them in the order I got them, because that’s just how my mind works (I have my comics boxed alphabetically by title, and deviate very, VERY rarely from that – mostly when I used to buy other titles in conjunction with some big crossover, titles that I didn’t buy regularly, in which case I just put them with the main title I was buying). So I’ve had a stack of comics begging to be read for some time, and right in the middle of them is this glorious slab of comics awesomeness, which I’ve wanted to read for a couple of months but have resisted because it wasn’t the next one in line. The fact that it’s gigantic didn’t help, either – it completely blocked out every other book underneath it (I have the books I need to review in a stack in my bedroom), so whenever I looked at what I needed to read next, I saw the books piled on top of it, then Fluorescent Black, propping all of them up and obscuring everything else. But then the day arrived (Monday, 13 December to be exact – see how long it takes me to get a review up?) when I could read this. And lo, life was good, for this is indeed as good as I thought it would be!

Fluorescent Black is a monster-sized collection of a story that I assume was originally serialized in Heavy Metal magazine (I assume this because it’s published by Heavy Metal, but it doesn’t say if it was originally serialized or if Heavy Metal has moved into the production of original graphic novels). It’s written by MF Wilson, drawn by Nathan Fox, colored by Jeromy Cox, and lettered by Sean Konot. It costs $24.95, for which you get a really good story drawn wonderfully by Fox, plus, you know, it’s monster-sized!!!!!!

Wilson’s story is a fairly standard cyberpunk tale in which punks from the wrong side of the tracks battle against a rich elite who keeps all the spoils of the future to themselves. Wilson sets the book in Singapore because, as he writes in his introduction, even today the city embodies the future, in both good and bad ways. The book takes place in 2085, when the divide between rich and poor is defined by genetic purity – those with “perfect” genes get to live in the city, while those with “imperfect” genes are forced to live in Johor Bahru, the shantytown across the river in Malaysia. The star of the book, a young man named Max, arrives in Johor Bahru with his mother and sister, and we get to see how they adjust to life in a dystopia. His sister, Blue, could have stayed in Singapore – there’s nothing wrong with her genes – but she leaves with Max when he’s diagnosed with “dystonia.” So we get a nice introduction to how the society in Singapore tears families apart – they have no problem with Blue, but Max is not allowed to stay. Of course, you can get treated for whatever genetic disorder you have and return – later in the book we meet a character who has done this – but Max and his mother don’t have the money, so they’re stuck.

Max and Blue quickly fall in with a street gang that makes money by dealing drugs and selling body parts, a lucrative business in the slums. Of course, their mother dies early on, and she tells them before she expires to sell her body, which they do. It’s a horrible and tragic scene, because everyone involved knows how cutthroat this world is and that Max and Blue have no time for sentiment (something which becomes important later on). After a gang fight goes wrong for one of Max’s friends, his group is hired by a rich dude from the other side of the river to go into a “nursery” in Singpore and kill everyone inside with an airborne virus. We soon see that the nursery is a laboratory where scientists are experimenting on clones to improve the human condition. One of these clones, Nina, is somehow special, as she’s able to touch people and read their memories and make them see stange visions. The head of the lab, Dr. Rupinder, thinks this is great, but a sympathetic doctor decides he’s going to help Nina escape. So these two stories are, of course, going to collide.

Wilson does a nice job bringing these two threads together. The operation against the lab is a clusterfuck, not surprisingly, and it covers Nina’s escape, even though she ends up with Max and his crew. When Max confronts the man who hired them to do the job, the man takes Blue hostage and demands that Max turn over Nina in exchange for his sister. Nina, however, is so valuable – in addition to her abilities, she’s immune to pretty much everything – that Max’s gang wants to sell her in Singapore so they can pay for the treatments that will allow them to return to the city. Max, of course, wants to save his sister. So Max is faced with a dilemma, as we’ve seen that sentiment doesn’t count much among the street gangs, but his sister could have stayed in Singapore but left it to be with him. Things get worse and worse, of course, as the various plot threads slowly coalesce in a giant bloodbath in a marketplace in Johor Bahru.

What makes the book so interesting is that it’s not just an action/adventure set in the future. Wilson brings up very pertinent ideas about genetic purity and what genetic engineering might mean for humanity. He’s definitely not against gene therapy, but he also shows the dark side of it. This ambivalence extends to the characters, too. One of the gang dies early on, and that’s we see again that these street people are so desperate that they can’t afford to give anyone a decent burial. When Blue is taken hostage, we think that naturally they would go after her because she’s family, but that’s not what happens. We also think that they won’t be so horrible to trade Nina for Blue or sell her back to her captors, but Nina is nothing to them, as is all life, really, so why wouldn’t they treat her as a commodity? Meanwhile, Dr. Rupinder isn’t just a cookie-cutter villain. Wilson gives us a few scenes of his childhood as he discovers how good he is at science and how he becomes dedicated to improving the human condition. As he grows up he becomes more monstrous, but Wilson makes it clear that it’s partly in response to the cheapening of life in general in the world, and if Rupinder doesn’t resist that more, neither do many others in the book (and in the real world, as well). We can see that Rupinder was once a man who wanted to make the world better, which makes his twisted view of humanity in the book all the more tragic. Wilson does a nice job with both the doctor – who’s the natural villain of the comic – and the street gangs – who ought to be the heroes. It makes the book much more interesting.

Fox is a big part of the book’s success, as well. I would imagine he’s an acquired taste, as his very messy style might put some people off, but to me, he’s magnificent.
Wilson doesn’t need an artist who’s going to show a sterile future, he needs someone like Fox, who does wonders with the brutal, dystopian parts of the book and can draw the utopian Singapore well but hint at the moral bankruptcy inherent in the system. His people are jagged and creaky, typical of the genetic disorders that gets them kicked out of Singapore, and even his beauties, like Nina, are flawed, making them more human. Nina is gorgeous, of course, and she comments on the fact that she has no scars, but Fox gradually hardens her edges as she begins to live in the real world. Fox immerses us in this world, filling the panels with sound effects and astonishing details, giving us wild camera angles to make us see the world through the eyes of various characters. There’s a horrible beauty and nobility to his characters, as they stand and fight against the forces of comformity, and when Fox has to go epic (there are a few full-page shots of some wild fantasies), he’s up to the task. I know that some people think Fox’s art is “ugly,” but much like Paul Pope (whose work his resembles), he gets right at the guts of humanity and the natural environment, distilling it into something terrible and strange and beautiful. The fact that this book is gigantic makes his art even more overwhelming, and Cox, who is often a wonderful colorist, brings the pencils to life with amazing vibrant hues – this is a world in technicolor, from sickly greens to dark blues to blazing reds. Fox’s intricate pencil work is stunning, and Cox’s colors make the detailed linework almost leap off the page.

Fluorescent Black is a stunning work of science fiction, because Wilson does a good job extrapolating out from where we are to bring us a future that’s chillingly plausible and never becomes preachy about any of the developments. Fox and Cox do a tremendous job bringing this future to life, showing us that, much like the world today, utopias often exist alongside dystopias, struggling against each other. It’s a gorgeous piece of work, and I can’t recommend it enough. Go find it somewhere!

Tomorrow: Conspiracies! Demons! Horror!!!!!

3 Comments

This type of book is right up my alley, and from these samples, the art looks great.

Is that your cat making a cameo on the second picture?

I love this book. I personally know MF Wilson and Nathan and they are two brilliant guys. I love this story and the art as well. Great review Greg. You captured and understood exactly what this book was about. We have both done work with Heavy Metal and these guys are really the coming of a new day for the magazine, along with Dan LuVisi and his book LMS. My comic deals with genetic manipulation and negative Utopias as well so it was great to have these guys blaze a trail for me. Very proud of them. Great work Greg!

I’ve been a fan of Nathan Fox’s artwork since I first saw it in “DMZ #18 & #19: Friendly Fire” plus there’s his excellent work in “DMZ #56″ (coincidentally, that issue is a stand-alone story about a man named Wilson!) but I haven’t seen a lot of his other work yet. I was going to pickup “Pigeons From Hell” since it was drawn by him & now I’ll have to also add “Fluorescent Black” onto my list.

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