An occult school that deals in information and mystery alike, eldritch abominations of man and monster, blood-soaked insect Gods, and four good kids with full rides caught up in the mix? Blackwood from writer Evan Dorkin, and artists Veronica and Andy Fish is a resounding, brutal and beautiful success.
What’s it about? Dark Horse’s preview reads:
When four teenagers with haunted pasts enroll in Blackwood College–a school that trains students in the occult–their desire to enhance their supernatural abilities and bond with others is hampered by an undead dean’s curse, ghosts in their dorm, a mischievous two-headed mummy-chimp, a plague of mutant insects, and the discovery of an ancient evil that forces our heroes to undergo a crash course in the occult for the sake of the world
Sounds good, huh? It is! And, collected here, for your convenience, are the first four issues — a kind of excerpt from the equally Lovecraftian and B.P.R.D-esque Blackwood College in the miniseries style Dorkin often writes in– that should whet your appetite for more. All emboldened by the Fish’s grisly and gratifying artistic effort.
Expertly paced from the compelling introductory pages (“It’s good we have to die, I’ve come to realize that, but not yet, not now — there’s still so much to do” a dying man croaks) through the end, there’s a tonal acuity and narrative focus here that’s hard to deny. Be it the cast of characters, dancing deftly between awestruck but capable students, and a surprisingly honest and affable group of secret-keep sorcerer teachers — all of whom I do wish had slightly more defined voices or vocabulary. Or, the jumps between humor and horror (one sticky note amid a bunch of actual clues just reads “well? wtf?”) at the drop of a pin, everything seems to be firmly in Dorkin’s control. It’s gross, beautiful, strange, and compelling all the same with a kind of Scooby Doo meets Evil Dead 2 nature, sharpened all the more by its great message about love and death (and all the stuff in-between).
In keeping with Dorkin’s usual styles, too, the entire thing reads like a dispatch from a totally realized world slightly askew from our own. This is a trick that I’ve enjoyed in other works of his, such as Beasts of Burden, but none more than here. The narrative, be it through dialogue or keen visual storytelling, explains the things that need to be at the time they’re essential — sometimes with gothic or humorous little garnishes — rather than front loading world-building even though it must be so tempting for a place as wonderful and strange as Blackwood.
And speaking of both wonderful and strange, the world of Blackwood is a sight to behold. Veronica and Andy Fish are, as far as I’m concerned, unmatched in their ability to bring this kind of neo-gothic horror story to life. Dark blacks and dramatic, hard shading are balanced by punches of purples, orange, and pink that invigorate the entire affair with a very specific autumnal energy that elevates an otherwise kind of storied setting well beyond the norm, with an eye for the trappings of the genre as well. Of course, it helps that they have what it takes to make the reader physically flinch at Hereditary-esque decapitations and ritual sacrifices, too.
So, what is Blackwood? At this conclusion of its (hopefully only first, and not finale) collection, one of my favorite horror comics of the year. But also, one of the better crossroads of genre, dissections of craft, and examples of mystery-pacing that I’ve seen in years, all near perfectly executed through a cross section of story and art that is so unfortunately missing in day-to-day comics until something like this comes along.