Imagining the world coming to an apocalyptic ruin, and trying to survive in this new world, has become the new thing people daydream about. So often friends, novels and movies are wishing the world would end to see what it would be like. We live with so much structure, from government to petty office politics, I think it’s a way for us to escape and having it all end at once is the quickest way to go from TPS reports to freedom.
In the last 15 years there have been so many end of world scenarios explored one might think the genre would run out. Novels in particular have used this setup—from vampires taking over in The Passage to everything just ending with no explanation in The Dog Stars, there seems to be a limitless supply of reasons, but like any good horror film it’s not about the monster, but the journey. Enter Fantagraphics Publishing’s new graphic novel Black River which is set in an apocalyptic nightmare due to a rather clever explanation. Is it more of the same or worthy of a place in the pantheon of end of the world stories?
Black River (Fantagraphics Publishing)
The story opens on a group of wintercoat wearing scavengers trying to keep themselves alive. They’ve come upon a container filled with guns, water and canned food. Jackpot! A dead body lies behind a container—an ominous find, but in his death grip he holds a journal with the promise of safety at a fortified town that still somehow has electricity. To say this story opens on a happy note that only goes downhill, bleak as the situation is, is an understatement. The story follows seven women, a man and two dogs as they try to hold their group together through the madness of this new world. On their journey they seek refuge, learn about how the world reached doomsday and encounter a very dangerous band of men that pushes them to the brink of sanity.
Things are looking up!
Writer and artist Josh Simmons writes this 112 page graphic novel in what could be considered a four part TV miniseries. It’s made up of four major sequences and is bookended nicely with an opening of hope and positivity (however positive you can be in such a terrible situation) and a conclusion that leaves the reader shocked and reflective. The story doesn’t necessarily end with a period, but emotionally you’ll feel drained for the characters and it’s safe to say the point of this story is made. This story is incredibly rich in articulating the characters’ emotions, which is why I liken it to a TV miniseries. The characters seem so real via their actions and emotions. This is of course important to a book that focuses on character over action and it does a great job with them.
Oh wait…maybe it’s not looking so great.
In some ways this graphic novel reminds me of The Road by Cormac McCarthy. The tone is very similar as the world is a scary, cold and heartless place since the fall of society. The world is barren and lonely as the characters traverse around burning cities and wilderness. Nothing needs to be said because they all know there’s nothing they can do but put one foot in front of the other. Even when the characters attempt to find some kind of happiness, a scene where they have sex, they awake to horror as they lose a friend. They react as if it’s nothing new, nor surprising, and carry on as if that friend never even existed. Their lack of emotion is infectious to the reader and we quickly take on their morose outlook.
I’d imagine the audience for this book are those looking for a story that’ll make them reflective of their own lives. That means if you’re looking for an uplifting exciting story you may not be reading the right book. Of course these types of stories allow us to escape, which is really what we’re looking for with any form of entertainment, but this book goes to some dark places that some might find offensive and upsetting. If you’re up for an honest look at a world gone mad you’re in the right place, but what these characters go through is nothing pretty.
Simmon’s art supports this sense of loneliness and cold hopelessness nicely in its black and white inky look. In most scenes much more black is used over the white, which further imbues a sense of hopelessness. Scenes with more white used tend to be in the day, and also tend to give the reader a sense of hope that is eventually destroyed. In its climactic moments the comic gets even more bleak as the characters must endure a downpour. The art takes on a new balance as black skies use white lines to convey rain and in some cases the very next panel shows a white ground with black lines conveying the same rain. It’s a polarizing technique that’s cool to look at but also conveys the crushing hopelessness well.
The characters are drawn in a cartoony sort of way, which might make one think the tragedy of the story loses a bit of its edge, but Simmons has a way of drawing eyes and expressions so that the feeling is not lost. Take for instance a sadistic torturer in the latter portion of the comic. His form is cartoony, but his sleepy eyes mixed with his sadistic actions make him incredibly frightening.
To add to the tone of the book is the sky, which is always present and beating down on our characters. Simmons draws some fantastic clouds which more often than not frame the top of a panel in a way so as to press down on our characters. While he draws some truly beautiful clouds throughout the book they are also strange and alien which further pit these characters in a world that doesn’t seem like our own. It’s a great way to make the environment seem unwelcoming too and further helps make the work feel literally awesome in its sorrow.
The environment, especially the clouds, really add to the tone of the book.
Dark, bleak and crushingly depressing, Black River will make you reflective of society and what it means to be alive.