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Review time! with Black Fire

I’m still getting back into the swing of things around here with regard to longer reviews of single works, so let’s jump into a graphic novel that has a 2011 publication date on it but came out in 2012!

Black Fire is written and drawn by Hernán Rodriguez, translated by Anna Rosen Guercio, and lettered by Troy Peteri. Archaia publishes this and charges $24.95 for it, but their production values are really nice. It’s a handsome hardcover, after all.

Black Fire has some nice things going for it. Rodriguez sets the story directly after Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow in the winter of 1812, so it’s a time period we don’t often read about in comics. The story takes place in Russia and is concerned with Slavic folklore, so it’s things we don’t often read about in comics, either. This lends the story some fascination, because the ancillary details are nicely done and give the book some unique flavor that spices things up. This is important, because basically, this is a standard horror comic. It’s a well done standard horror comic, but one nevertheless.

We begin with Ducasse, Serpierre, and Phillipe, three Frenchmen on the run from Cossacks. Phillipe is shot and dies soon, but Ducasse and Serpierre manage to “elude” the Cossacks and find refuge in a deserted town (I use quotation marks because the Cossacks could have followed them, but they don’t). They find some other refugees from Napoleon’s retreat – a motley international crew including an Italian, a Portuguese, a Pole, and several French people. They’re starving and freezing to death, and they don’t know what to do. Among them is a dying soldier, who speaks of strange things before he dies, far more violently than his condition should warrant. Oh dear. Eventually, of course, others start dying violently, and paranoia spreads throughout the survivors. They’re being picked off, but they don’t know by whom. Ducasse, Serpierre, and a few other soldiers try to investigate, and they discover that the town is deserted for a very horrific reason, and perhaps they shouldn’t have been poking around, because they’ve awoken something that is pretty unstoppable.

Yes, it’s the plot of many, many horror stories, and Rodriguez doesn’t do too much different with the bare bones of the plot. As with so many things, it’s the details that matter, and Rodriguez’s explanations for what’s going on delves deep into weird Slavic folklore, which helps mitigate the fact that the plot is nothing we haven’t seen before. I’m certainly not going to get too into what’s going on, but it is quite creepy, mainly because of the way Rodriguez reveals the details rather than for the details themselves – Ducasse has strange dreams where the dead Phillipe tries to warn him what’s coming, the Pole wanders into a fairy-tale castle where he receives certain strange clues, stuff like that. It’s a fairly gory book, too, and Rodriguez makes sure the violence feels brutally real, so that’s a mark in its favor. The setting and the time period help, too, because there’s a sense that these characters are closer to the dark things of the world and that they’re less equipped to deal with them, so their helplessness and resolve feel more real. Well, to me, at least.

Rodriguez fails a bit to give the characters much personality – they’re stock characters, even Ducasse and Serpierre, who are the main protagonists. He tries a bit, but none of the characters really stand out – the woman does because she’s the only female, but that’s about it. There are the noble characters, the hotheaded characters, the slimy characters – because of the conventions of the genre, we can almost tick off in which order the characters will be killed. That’s too bad, but again, other factors help mitigate it. Remember The Brotherhood of the Wolf? That movie was a lot better than it should have been simply because of the setting and the time period. The same thing applies to Black Fire.

Rodriguez does have some nice art chops, though. He has a very rough, angular style, but that helps create this rough-hewn Russian setting in which the characters find themselves, plus his people look like they’ve been through a war, which they have. His figures look gaunt and emaciated, like they’re already dead and are just waiting to be put out of their misery (no, that’s not a clue). He also gives us some marvelous pages of weird, dream-like stuff, and they’re often beautiful. Rodriguez colors the book, too, and he uses a broad palette, washing the town in grays and blacks and whites while making the dream stuff blaze with fantastic colors. Of course, there’s a lot of red in the book, too, but Rodriguez uses it when it will have the biggest effect, and it’s pretty good how he does so. There’s a lot of insane stuff in the book, and where a movie would use crappy CGI, Rodriguez is able to blend it perfectly with the rest of the book so it looks, if not natural then at least part of the landscape. This is why comics are often better than movies – nothing looks out of place in this book because everything is in Rodriguez’s style, so the monsters and what not that haunt the pages look like they belong even though they’re horrific creatures.

I don’t love Black Fire, but I do Recommend it if you’re interested in something a little different in the horror genre. I didn’t love the predictability of the story, but it was entertaining and interesting to look at. It’s cooler looking than a movie with the same plot would be, I’ll tell you that much.

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