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Review time! with Black Charity

Putting a dominatrix in your comic should be a symbol of excellence, right?

Black Charity comes to us from the fine folk at Archaia, who would like you to give them 1,995 pennies in exchange for it. It’s written and drawn by Bal Speer, whose picture in the back of the book does not hint at the weirdness lurking within!

Well, at least the comic starts out weird. Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite keep it up, and ultimately, it’s somewhat disappointing. Speer begins with a hothead named Duncan, who attacks a guy in the park who won’t clean up his dog’s shit by picking up said shit and smushing it into the dude’s face, which is a fine way to introduce a character, if you ask me. Then we meet Charlie, who moves into the apartment building where Duncan lives and discovers that Duncan isn’t even the weirdest occupant. That would be Polly, the dominatrix who lives across the courtyard and into whose apartment Charlie can see, so of course he watches her. Speer also gives us an old woman who dies in a bath tub early on in the book, and Duncan beating the shit out of Charlie because he thinks Charlie broke into his apartment (and Charlie never sees him, so the fact that they’re sort of mates for the rest of the book is quite funny) and Polly knowing (of course) that Charlie is watching her, and two guys discussing why having sex with a dead body is such a horrible thing. It’s a perversely funny book, and while I had no idea where it was going and I had some problems with the fact that Speer switched narrators seemingly at random (Charlie is the dominant narrator, but he’s not the only one), it was an intriguing little comic.

Then Speer gets to the main plot, and the whole thing falls apart. It turns out that the old lady was a pimp, and one of her whores, who was friends with Polly, had a standing date with a government official, and the old lady kept precise records. I won’t go into why everyone cares so much, but the book quickly turns into a thriller, as Charlie, Polly, and Duncan go on the run from government hitmen, as they try to find a sympathetic reporter who will publish the exposé. Naturally, it all goes pear-shaped, and the survivors manage to get themselves out of the pickle in the dullest way possible, setting up a completely silly happy ending. It’s really shocking how quickly the book goes off the rails.

It’s frustrating, because Speer does create these interesting characters. Duncan is a borderline sociopath who does nice things for all the wrong reasons and goes off half-cocked with almost no provocation. Charlie is a simpering whiner who can’t let go off his girlfriend and doesn’t have the stones to make a move on Polly, preferring instead to have a wank in his apartment. Polly is somewhat bland – for a dominatrix, that is – but just by dint of being a dominatrix, she has potential. All the elements of a creepy sexual thriller are there, and Speer does nothing with them. He just puts the three characters through a rote plot that resembles so many other action thrillers where the main characters have potentially damning information about someone in the government. The scandal in this has potential, but it’s so sanitized that we don’t even have a chance to think about how awful it really is. It’s maddening. Let’s put it this way – I should have been uncomfortable reading this, because I’m so middle-class it’s not even funny. But this is something I would feel comfortable letting my mother read. That’s too bad.

Speer’s Mignola/Fegredo art style is pretty nice, though. His people are scroungy, tough, and harsh – even Charlie, who’s kind of a wuss, has a nice, earthy feel to him. Duncan and Polly look like they’ve been through the wars, and even though Speer doesn’t delve too far into their characters, his depiction of them helps fix their personalities in our mind. Speer isn’t afraid to show life as mean and ugly, and that’s another reason why the dull plot is disappointing – the scenes with Polly working come close to being extremely creepy, and one wonders if Speer could have done a lot more with that kind of work. When Duncan beats Charlie up, Speer makes us feel every blow – his thick lines make every action more visceral – and at the end, when a character dies, Speer does a very nice job of breaking up the panels to make it look jittery and tragic. The sex scenes are also quite nice, because these are real-looking people, so the sex – what we see of it, which isn’t too much – is messy and jerky, as the characters try to move around and get in new positions. Speer does a good job with the claustrophobic apartment building and the wide-open spaces once the chase begins, turning things on their head a bit, because usually the chases are in more cramped places. It’s a nice-looking book, certainly – I don’t have any problems with the visual aspect of Speer’s work.

I suppose I can Mildly Recommend this because, as far as dull plots go, Speer doesn’t do anything too wrong. I realize that wishing the plot was something else is silly, but even though I didn’t like the way the plot went, I don’t think he does anything really different with that plot. I don’t have a problem with out-of-their-depth characters trying to escape government thugs, because I like thrillers, but Speer doesn’t really do too much even with that basic plot, and when there’s so much more on the fringes of the plot, I get even more disappointed. If you go into this book expecting the plot, it’s a decent enough comic. I just wish Speer had been bolder in his execution of the book. Why else would you put a dominatrix in it, anyway?

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