Review time! with Blacklung
Blacklung is by Chris Wright, it’s published by Fantagraphics, and they charge you $24.99 for it. Just so you know!
I’m not sure what I’m going to write about Blacklung, which is a fairly bleak comic that doesn’t offer much hope in a violent world. I’ve been thinking about it for a while, and I probably have to read it a few more times to really get into it, but I didn’t want to wait too long. It’s very strange, I’ll say that much.
The basic narrative follows a teacher named Isaac, who has long become cynical and inured to the suffering in the city in which he lives. He believes that it’s none of his business what his students do outside of the classroom, a sentiment not shared by his colleague or the woman he once loved but whom he offended in some way (Wright hints about his history, but that’s all it is – hints). Meanwhile, a local crime boss wants to get rid of a dude named Mose, who has proven remarkably resistant to killing. He’s already tried to get Mose pressganged, which didn’t work, but he tries again. Isaac and his friend Jonah happen to follow one of their students into a bar just as the gang jumps Mose, and they think the three are together. Jonah is killed, but Isaac gets thrown onto a pirate ship with Mose, where his problems really begin. Mose decides, oddly, to take Isaac under his protection (the pirates are ready to kill Isaac, because they were only supposed to grab Mose), and then the captain realizes that Isaac is educated, so he starts dictating his memoirs to Isaac (this is difficult, as Isaac’s right hand has been amputated and he needs to learn how to write with the other). The captain’s previous biographer, a priest, has gone a bit mad, so the captain needs someone else. And so Isaac begins to spend a lot of time with the captain, who doesn’t seem all there himself. It’s very strange.
The pirates are a surprisingly philosophical lot, as the captain and one of the sailors, Outwater, seem very interested in religion and their path in life. This doesn’t stop them from killing people, of course, but they do ponder it more than others (the captain has a reason for it, but I won’t give it away). Meanwhile, another high-ranking pirate, Sweany, is a straight psychopath, and he and Mose are natural antagonists. Sweany can’t stand that Mose protects Isaac, and Isaac himself is mystified by it. Mose himself can’t really explain it, but as the book moves on, we find hidden depths even in Mose. This is a strange book because the men talk about deep ideas and their relationship to each other and the nature of evil, but they embrace their depravity, unlike so-called civilized men. The point, if I suss it out, is that Isaac is a hypocrite because of his attitude toward the kids in his care, and the pirates, while far more evil than he is, are purer. That’s a far too easy reading – Wright is obviously doing some deeper things here – but it’s not a bad place to start. The captain believes that he is at war with God, yet he himself tries to act like God – he attacks a fort and kills the men horribly but tries to restrain the men who want to rape the women. Sweany is his opposite number in many ways, but at the same time, the captain is simply Sweany with a bit more elocution. All of these brutal men in such a confined space leads to horrific violence, of course, but does it make it worse that they struggle with their violent urges before giving into them?
Wright doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to artwork, either. This is a graphically violent book, as the pirates slaughter people in terrible and even casual ways. It’s rough, almost cartoonish art, where the characters don’t quite look human and they seem to lumber through the book comically. Wright’s design sense comes to the fore when the captain begins to muse about his origins and why he does what he does and the pages become loopy and twisty works of art, leading us all over the page and creating a bizarre tapestry of tragedy. It’s a strangely beautiful book – certainly not in the traditional sense, but in the sense that the artwork fits the tone of the writing very well and creates a mood that envelops the reader and never lets the reader become too comfortable. Wright’s script is disturbing, and the artwork helps amplify that feeling.
I don’t really do the book justice with this post, but it’s a very complex piece of work that defies simple summarization and I think I need to think about it a lot more before I could get through everything that Wright is trying to say. I will Recommend it, though, because even the actual story is gripping and terrifying and filled with a certain crushing inevitability from which it’s hard to turn. Blacklung is a weird comic, but Wright fills it with a lot of interesting characters who defy stereotyping and gives us a unique and compelling graphic novel. I’m looking forward to re-reading it and puzzling out more of what’s going on!