Crawling From the Wreckage is a new feature on Nerdspan. The title is a loving nod to Grant Morrison’s DOOM PATROL; it is also a loving nod to the fact that comic readers tend to look a little bit like hoarders. Some of our backlogs look more like warehouses, and this is our attempt to give some acknowledgement and love to all the stuff we’ve piled up, or decide what should go in a box in the basement, where it can’t fall on our heads. Our first entry is BLACKLUNG by Chris Wright.
You will believe a book can go from references to John Milton, Shakespeare, and the Epic of Gilgamesh, to an exchange like:
“I’ve never used a sword.”
“It’s a big knife… you cut things with it.”
Chris Wright’s BLACKLUNG is a vicious, sometimes confusing, almost always literary, story about a teacher who ends up aboard the worst ship you could want to be aboard. The teacher, Isaac, ends up valued for his ability to read, and becomes the worst thing he could become on the ship: an asset. Brahm, the ship’s captain, decides Isaac will write his memoirs.
There’s a lot of setup before all of that, and it feels superfluous on a look back. We learn a lot about Isaac on the ship; it could be argued that seeing him in times of peace makes him easier to relate to, but it’s hard enough to relate to anybody in the story; Wright’s language and art obscure everything. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing: Wright’s art is downright stunning at points, and not just when he’s laying out a landscape with incredible cross-hatching. His characters have life and energy beyond what is often a throwaway nature; his sense for design shines. There are varying degrees of monstrosity in almost every character; sometimes they’re pushed into it, sometimes they’ve got it as soon as they walk on-panel. One would guess, given the content, that this is what Wright’s going for.
Chris Wright shouts from the cheap seats in BLACKLUNG. There’s not much of a market for things like this. It’s perfectly at home in the Fantagraphics world.
Wright comes from the Center for Cartoon Studies in Vermont, and the Center is starting to turn out cartoonists the way the Iowa Writers’ Workshop turns out writers: the voice is often there, but unrefined. Wright should count himself among the refined: this debut resembles Charles Forsman’s TEOTFW and Sean Ford’s incredible ONLY SKIN; they later followed those books with different indicators of their influences and interests. Forsman went for ultra-violence; Ford went deeper into the dark. Wright went from the Jim Woodring influenced shorts of INKWEED to this long, sprawling run through a rain of blood. His voice is enormous: the dialog drifts from something like prim British to “IMA KILL THAT S**TFACE” without anything seeming out of place. It’s hard to pin down any of his artistic influences: he’s cited Ralph Bakshi and Vaughn Bode, but in his characters, it’s hard not to see Will Eisner in the gesticulation, or Tom Hart in the quieter moments.
Technique-wise, BLACKLUNG gives you mouthfuls to chew on that could take you hours: it’s a 120-page book that could take you a year to read if you wanted to catch everything. The panel-per-page count is staggering from time to time, and when Wright plays with layout, it’s dazzling. The aforementioned reflections of character traits in their designs are things you could explore all the way through the book: it’s an old trick, but Wright pulls it off with an expert’s skill. His silent panels are used to great effect. There’s a lot of Cormac McCarthy in the dialog, the violence, the vicious characters (Sweany is one of the most contemptible characters I’ve read in a while), and the fact that the characters reveal themselves only slightly. He’s funnier than McCarthy: some of the humor is very subtle; some of it is pure slapstick.
The only place where BLACKLUNG doesn’t pull its weight is cohesion. The first quarter of the book could be about half its size; everything ends up repeating itself as the book goes along. The ending falls out of the sky, but, again, this could all be Chris Wright’s design; the abduction comes to Isaac’s life out of nowhere — would it not be fitting that the story’s end reflect that? The literary nature sometimes jumps in the way of telling the story; things could afford to be spelled out, but Wright may have no intention of doing so. This is a challenging and rewarding graphic novel that pulls no punches between its content and its technique. It’s well worth your time, and if it’s been sitting on your bookshelf collecting dust, you should pick it up and set aside some time.
WRITTEN AND DRAWN BY CHRIS WRIGHT
PUBLISHED BY FANTAGRAPHICS
PURCHASED IN: 2012
COVER PRICE: $24.95
PAID: $0 (“comic shop store credit” while employed there)
BOUGHT BECAUSE: it looked really cool