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Review time! with Black Jack Ketchum #3 and 4

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“Well, he robbed his way from Utah to Oklahoma and the law just could not seem to track him down”

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I’ve been getting nifty digital copies of Black Jack Ketchum from writer Brian Schirmer, and as tomorrow the final issue gets released, I figured I’d review issues #3 and 4, because that’s just how I roll! blajacketch1 (2)The comic is illustrated by Claudia Balboni and is published by Image, and each issue is $3.99.

Black Jack Ketchum is an odd Western, full of “weird Western” tropes but also some other strange things, things I don’t really want to give away in this review, but that kind of puts a crimp in what I can actually write about. In the first two issues, we got indications that not all was as it seems – even beyond Schirmer using designation like the Judge and the Railroad Baron (capital letters very much implied and needed). Tom Ketchum’s quest to figure out if he’s actually notorious outlaw Black Jack Ketchum was the driving force of the first two issues, as it is in issue #3, as he comes to what he believes is the end of his search (obviously, as there’s one more issue to go, he’s not quite done, but he is in one crucial way). But Schirmer put enough in those first two issues to make us aware that all was not quite right in Tom Ketchum’s world, and in these two issues, he fully embraces the weirdness to make his ultimate point. Tom and the silent young girl who follows him around (not to mention his talking gun) were joined at the end of issue #2 by a Gambler, but Tom, it turns out, got his designation wrong, and the man becomes more important in issue #3, as he explains some things that might be a way of looking at what’s happening to Tom. In issue #4, Schirmer takes us on an unusual journey that is more about what we believe, using ideas that are common in our culture, in order to make his point. blajacketch2 (2)It’s a very interesting way to make this more than just a Western story about a man searching for his identity. Schirmer cleverly takes a common “Western” idea – Stephen King, after all, famously began his own Western with a sentence almost summing up the plot of this comic – and upends it enough so that it remains what he began with, but also becomes more universal. The fascinating choice that Schirmer presents Tom Ketchum with is one in which he can decide on an identity and a fate, which is all any of us want, anyway.

Another thing that’s fairly interesting about the comic is something I always appreciate, and that’s the feeling that the writer isn’t trying to fool the reader. Schirmer, I imagine, had this entire thing plotted out before he wrote the first issue, so it’s not like he was making it up as he went along – he could go back and change some things in earlier issues if they didn’t jibe with what came later. So he knows what is going to happen to Tom before we do, but we never get the sense that he’s trying to trick us. He leads us from one thing to another, and it’s mysterious, but about the time we suspect something about Tom in issue #3, Tom himself voices it and he and the Gambler discuss it, so even if we think it, Schirmer nicely anticipates our ideas. blajacketch3 (2)Obviously, the book is a mystery, and some characters (the Judge, for example) know more than we (and Tom) do, but Schirmer never seems to be pulling a fast one on us. As Tom learns what’s going on, we do. It’s a nice way to read a comic.

Balboni continues to do nice work on the art – she has some issues with perspective, as when the silent girl shoots a rifle in issue #3, but overall, she does a good job, especially with layouts and Dutch angles, which add to the strangeness of Tom’s search and make the entire West, even the landscape, seem like it’s conspiring against him. There’s a terrific sequence in the middle of issue #3 when Tom is inside a wooden shack, and Balboni illuminates the spaces in between the planks of the walls and keeps everything else black, so Tom walks through a black void full of parallel orange lines, which is very disorienting. When the comic gets really weird in issue #4, she does a good job making sure the art stays (relatively) grounded, so that Schirmer’s flights of fancy can remain anchored a bit – Balboni gives us some fanciful stuff, but she draws it roughly, so it fits in with the setting and doesn’t appear to bizarre. It’s a good way to draw the book, because Schirmer does get a bit bizarre. blajacketch4 (2)The coloring on the book remains excellent, too – I already mentioned the wooden shack, but the rough browns of the desert blend nicely with the oranges and yellows in the sky, and late in issue #4, as the sun goes down, we get gorgeous purples above the hills, which ties in with the idea that Tom’s odyssey is coming to an end.

I don’t think I misread the end of the story, although it’s certainly possible. What is nice is that Schirmer makes us think about things, which is never a bad thing when you read something. Black Jack Ketchum is exciting, sure, but it also has a lot on its mind, and even though I don’t want to get into what’s on its mind too much, it’s still a neat way for Schirmer to get where he wants to go. You can still pre-order the trade, I think (it’s in the latest Previews, and I’m sure the cut-off date hasn’t passed), and it appears that it will be out in June. It’s a clever, nice-looking story that stays with you, as it gives you plenty to think about.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆

9 Comments

Travis Pelkie

March 9, 2016 at 2:44 am

so tl;dr is that it’s worth getting in trade. OK, I’ll keep that in mind. I think we’ve got at least a week or two for orders.

Doesn’t seem up my alley, though there’s that tantalizing blind spot due to spoiler avoidance. But I still have questions, because that’s just how I roll!

All samples have a half-page splash and little content, like those comics that take more dollars to buy than minutes to read. How representative of the whole is that?

And isn’t there usually a rating tag?

Simon: Yeah, it’s frustrating because I really don’t want to give too much away. I think it’s more interesting than you might think, but I can’t say for sure, and I don’t want to discuss it! So frustrating! :)

There’s quite a bit of wordless storytelling, in case you’re wondering. It’s a bit more text-heavy in issue #4, as we get an explanation for what’s going on, but I didn’t show any of that (all of those examples are from issue #3; again, no spoilers!!!!). I think the pacing is pretty good – it’s not “empty art,” and a lot of the artwork is “fuller” than what I show, even without words, but that’s just my opinion. You may differ!

I don’t know if the printed copies have a ratings tag – these are digital, so perhaps it hadn’t been applied yet?

Sorry for being unclear (that’s what I get when trying to be less verbose), I meant that your reviews usually have a rating tag such as “Recommended with reservations”, “Mildly recommended”, “Recommended”, and “Strongly recommended”?

As for the ending, I decided that since I was prolly not going to get it, I’d lookup reviews of #3–4 and spoil myself silly.

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From http://bigcomicpage.com/2016/03/08/review-black-jack-ketchum-4-image-comics/ I got the feeling it’s all the dream of a dying man, being maybe the actual outlaw or some actor playing him? Not unlike the core trick in Borges’s THE SECRET MIRACLE or Scorcese’s LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST?

If so, I guess it’s all in the execution and what ideas are added on top, since that sort of twist was already an old trick when Borges or Scorcese made exemplary uses of it.

(Sometimes, reviews handle such problem with a white-on-white spoiler paragraph that you have to select to read. TV Tropes does it too.)

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Simon: Oh, I see. I forgot it. But now I added it!

Ugh, that “review.” I would think that, when creators whine about reviewers, they’re talking about that kind of review. Just a recitation of plot points with very little critical assessment. I know I’m not Lester Bangs, but I really try to write about what the author is trying to do rather than just giving shit away. To your point, yes, there’s some of that in issues #3 and 4, but Schirmer, as I mentioned, kind of undercuts it, and that’s not what the book is really about, anyway. So there are some ideas that, yes, have been mined before (and one instance is specifically brought up, and if you read that review, you can probably guess which one), but Schirmer does some different things with those ideas that make it, in my mind worthwhile.

Gah. I will spoil decades-old comics (and I’ve been ripped even for that!), but to spoil something that just came out and that not a lot of people have read yet just to give a dry point-by-point overview of the plot is annoying. It’s just too bad.

Thanks, I tend to start out reading the rating and tag to inform how I’ll consider the plus and minus points of a review.

Yeah, it’s early so only your review and this “recap” are up yet. I don’t mind so much how its contents is so summary in more ways than one, as people baffled by an issue often look for precisely such a plain page. But its not having any warning before the onslaught seems clumsy, as even finale reviews usually use vague terms or a spoiler section. (And you should always have a spoiler warning! I wonder how a youngster can make it to the age of seeing CITIZEN KANE or anything without having had it spoiled ten times already.)

It may be a coincidence, but I suspected stuff from your first sample, where the clocktower’s face has no hands. It could be mere dereliction, but it really reminded me a certain Borgesian nightmare! (Borges often had themes of identity/reality or the double/doppelganger/enemy, and inspired plenty such as Nolan.) In that eerie two-pager, “The Cypress Leaves”, the blind writer ended thusly:

&nbps; “The following day I discovered a gap on the shelf; the book of Emerson was missing that I had left in my dream. Ten days later I was told that my enemy had left his house one night and had not returned. He never will return. Caught within my nightmare, he will continue discovering with horror, beneath the moon I did not see, the city of blank clocks, fake trees that cannot grow and no-one knows what other things.”

(“blank clocks” should have been “blind clocks” but many translators blunt Borges, and it’s lifted from non-pro translations of rarer Borgesiana that had this story at http://wayback.archive.org/web/20030513163355/http://www.geocities.com/christophermulrooney/borges/id57.html )

Anyway, my takeout is that it’s not a mere case of mistaken identity or supernatural Western, but the author having Bigger Ideas to fry, right? I’ve pencilled-in the trade below my list for this Previews. But I must say, they prolly picked the worse month to add their book, as March is always the War on Wallet…

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On seeing your top picture again (his double asking, “Why did you do that?”), I wondered whether it’s not a deal similar to a certain movie I shan’t name-and-spoil, where the lead character is taken in by a cop for suspected murder and plays a cat-and-mouse game interrogation the whole movie. But in the end, it turns out that the lead had killed himself and forgotten it, the cop was an angel-like creature, and the whole movie taking place in a corner of the afterlife.

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Simon: I’m not going to comment on anything you wrote just because I really don’t want to inadvertently give anything away, but I will say HOLY SHIT I CAN’T BELIEVE YOU REFERENCED THAT MOVIE BECAUSE I LOVE IT AND I THOUGHT I WAS THE ONLY PERSON, LITERALLY, WHO HAD EVER SEEN IT. It’s just another reason you’re such a cool commenter!!!! :)

Travis Pelkie

March 9, 2016 at 9:24 pm

STOP WRITING SPOILER STUFF, DAMMIT! I CAN’T EVEN SEE WHAT MOVIE GREG IS TALKING ABOUT, BUT I DON’T WANNA KNOW YET UNTIL I GET THIS TRADE DOWN THE ROAD. DAMMIT!

I made the mistake of flipping through this issue in the store a bit and I think I spoiled myself anyway.

Maybe the issues will be around at my shop and I can get them for FCBD for cheap! Or else my guy will package the whole mini as a set.

[…] CBR – Black Jack Ketchum #3 and #4 […]

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