January 20, 2020

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Black Stars Above (Series Review)

Black Stars Above
Written by Lonnie Nadler
Illustrated by Jenna Cha
Colored by Brad Simpson
Lettered by Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou
Published by Vault Comics

This is my second review of a Vault horror comic and it's only January (see my earlier review of The Plot), so I think they're onto something.  Today I'm looking at Black Stars Above (written by Lonnie Nadler, drawn by Jenna Cha and colored by Brad Simpson), a fantastically unsettling supernatural horror book that perfectly evokes a world of desolation and loneliness.



First, let me tell you a little bit about what scares me. I promise, this will lead into why I found Black Stars Above to be so very effective at creating an unsettling and scary world.  I don't like horror movies. It's just never been my thing. Particularly I'm not a fan of the slasher movies that were popular when I was a kid (A Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, etc.). Excessive violence and gore (and the perpetrators thereof) has never interested me as far as scares are concerned. But let me tell you about the kind of scary story that does interest me.
One of the first comics to ever really scare me was Strikeforce Morituri, which I first read when I was 10, not long after losing my Grandmother. The premise of the story was that aliens had invaded Earth, and that the way humanity was fighting back was by turning regular people into super-people (in order to more effectively fight the aliens). The catch is, a side effect of being turned into a super-person is that you'll be dead within a year. You might die in combat anyway, but the transformation will kill you within a year regardless. As someone who had experienced the loss of my Grandmother and a number of other relatives within a short amount of time, I was terrified by the idea that everyone you meet and come to root for in this story is guaranteed to die. This underscored the fragility of all things for me, and changed the lens through which I viewed the story.

A recent comic that I found truly scary was The Vision. It's a story about how the android Avenger Vision moves to the suburbs, creates a family for himself, and tries to live a "normal" existence. From the outset of the story, you know that terrible things are going to happen. And the combination of Gabriel Walta and Jordie Bellaire's art, and fantastic narration and dialogue from Tom King, suffuse the entire comic with this incredible sense of existential dread. There is violence, and bad things do happen, but in a way when they happen there's almost a sense of relief. The creative team has created such a palpable sense of fear and darkness looming over all of the characters.

So I guess what I'm saying is, a "someone's running around killing everyone" story doesn't interest me. But if you can create or evoke a big, terrifying idea, and create a compelling world that's full of dread? Sign me up. And on that score, Black Stars Above truly delivers.
Black Stars Above takes place in 1887 in rural Manitoba, and centers on the life of Eulalie, who lives in a small cabin in the rural woods, with her mother, father, and disabled (and possibly delusional) grandfather. They are fur trappers, and the story tells us that by the late 1880's, there isn't a lot of opportunity left for fur trappers. Eulalie and her family live out a very spartan existence. Eulalie tells her that they are going to return to civilization with a job for the father, and that she is to be married off to another fur trapper. Angry and resentful, she heads off to the town to run an errand, wherein she encounters a strange man who gives her an opportunity. He will pay her a considerable sum of money if she can deliver a package to the town north of the woods. Neither she nor anyone else she knows has ever been to, or even met anyone from this town, which is shrouded in mystery. It'll be a long and arduous journey, but Eulalie is desperate, and anything feels better than being trapped in her life. So she agrees. The man cautions though, do not open the package [Narrator: She opened the package].  Eventually, Eulalie sneaks out in the middle of the night and heads off. From there, things get weird, and then they get even weirder.

One of the very best things any story can do (movie, book, comic) is to really establish a sense of place. This is so essential and it's so hard to do. I want to care about characters, and I want to read an interesting story, but at the heart of it, I want to feel like a story has taken me somewhere (whether that's somewhere familiar or completely new, and whether it is someplace wonderful or someplace awful). Black Stars Above creates an atmosphere and a sense of place, as well as any comic I have read in a very long time. I wasn't familiar with artist Jenna Cha before this story, but I am now, and I promise you will be hearing a lot more from her. Cha's work in Black Stars Above is a real revelation, in conjunction with some absolutely stunning work by Brad Simpson on colors. Cha and Simpson bring a terrifying world to life.

The story begins with the cold of snow and winter. Sometimes a snowy vista in a story can be lovely. But not here. Here, the skies are gray and the colors on the page convey an air of desolation. And almost immediately we're introduced to the man in the first image above. A hard man, in hard circumstances, in observation of wild animals. On these pages and others throughout the story, you can feel the cold and the snow in which these people live.  Cha's art conveys a sense of people that are all weary, and chilled to the bone. She has a style that is slightly stylized in her depiction of faces and facial features, but is rooted in reality. Her backgrounds and settings are all first rate and convey a great deal of thoughtfulness and verisimilitude.

When we are first introduced to Eulalie we can immediately feel the terror in this story. These people live in a lonely, isolated existence. Talk of the big city (in this case, Toronto) feels like discussion of another world.  Cha and Simpson perfectly convey the fact that Eulalie is trapped in this story in two different and related ways. Eulalie lives in a very small cabin surrounded by spare, gray woods. At the exact same time, her life in the cabin is one of almost claustrophobic confinement. It's a very small cabin where she's trapped with her family in a world not of her choosing, simultaneously crowded and alone. Cramped into a cabin with her delusional, sickly grandfather and her parents, with no privacy. And yet outside this confinement she's trapped by the vast and seemingly endless wilderness.  It's pretty bleak, and the art brings this to life.

When Eulalie hears that she is essentially fated to never leave this place she becomes more desperate than ever. So when presented with the opportunity to earn a significant sum of money and do something for herself, Eulalie cannot refuse. The terror and cold of the unknown woods and the mysterious town north of them is preferable to the terror of her cramped yet isolated existence. Cha's linework and design are in a sweet spot where I really like my art to be - realistic enough to accurately convey a sense of place and time, but not photo-realistic. I don't like art that focuses on realism and physical accuracy at the expense of emotional truth and storytelling. Thankfully, Cha and Simpson strike a great balance here. I feel very much immersed in the world of this story, and the art is nothing but additive in that respect.
If Black Stars Above were only a wordless story it would still be very effective storytelling. That is a credit to the strength of Cha and Simpson as visual storytellers. As befits a story of this nature, there isn't that much talking. This is a lonely, desolate world, and the story written by Nadler, as brought to life by Cha and Simpson, really conveys that sense of desolation. This comic has a great deal of verisimilitude, and feels thoroughly researched. The terror here is loneliness and isolation, of course. But the terror here is also other people. This is still a frontier land, and another you encounter out in the woods could be a friend or a foe. There are no cell phones, you can't call anyone. Alone really is alone, and a person really is left to fend for herself. The story makes that clear.

But thankfully for me and every other reader of this comic, the story isn't wordless. Lonnie Nadler has written a really special comic, and the strength of his writing really does bring a terrific comic up a whole other level (obviously, he wrote the comic so there would be no comic without the script - I mean something more specific).  There isn't a lot of dialogue, and Nadler still has a lot of information he wants to provide, so the narrative element of the story is delivered mostly by the narration of Eulalie. From what we can tell, these captions are from a letter that Eulalie has written or will write. Nadler has a great sense for Eulalie's voice. There is a formality to the tone, which effectively denotes the fact that this is the 19th century and this is a letter, meaning a person would speak more formally than they would in conversation. But the narration is skillful, and even through the formality of it, we get a sense for what is happening in Eulalie's head.

Later on in the story (in issue #3) there are a number of pages that are the excerpts of the journal of another character. Typically I'm not a huge fan of this sort of device in comics, as I feel it can slow down the storytelling. However, Nadler is doing something really great and specific with this journal. By the time we get to issue #3, Eulalie has already seen some terrible and inexplicable things. But she has no one to talk to about these things, and feels alone and isolated. The journal she finds is of someone who ventured from the city out to this wilderness and has encountered the same phenomena that she encountered. The excerpts from his journal are a very effective distillation of his descent into fear, confusion and eventual madness. Like I said, this isn't normally my thing in comics, but I think that Nadler is a terrific writer and really pulls it off. By this point in the story you're invested in both Eulalie and in finding out what is going on. Through this journal, we can see another example of the way that the loneliness and isolation and strangeness of this place wears down a person's sanity and eats away at the way they are expected to act and think in "civilized" society.

A note about the narration and specifically the lettering in the comic. A lot of the comic relies on "journal"-style lettering and design, and this is able done by Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou. The lettering is done in a script style and so there's a lot of potential for that to either feel gimmicky or be hard to read. And I am glad to say that neither is the case. The lettering placement works throughout the series and the design and stylistic choices feel additive to the story.
The desolation and loneliness of the story are so effectively told in word and art, they would effectively convey the way these things can warp a person's sense of reality, even without the supernatural elements. But what about those supernatural elements?  I absolutely want to talk about the supernatural elements, but I don't want to say too much as I still don't exactly understand what's happening on that front. However, here's what I will tell you.  As noted, the "regular" loneliness and dread and terror of the story would be plenty of dread for one story. But there are parts of the story that make it even freakier.

Animals that don't look the way that animals should look. *something* that seems alive that is hard to categorize. All of these sorts of things are brought to effectively terrifying life by Cha and Simpson. There's also the manner of those proverbial "black stars above".  Night itself can be lonely and scary, but often the stars in the sky can serve as a real comfort. Here, the black stars in question are something else. The darkness in the art really feels like a complete absence of not only light, but connection to the natural world. As depicted by the art team here, these phenomena in the skies are inexplicable and unsettling. We don't really understand what we are seeing, but we and Eulalie both understand enough to know that what we are seeing is *wrong* on a fundamental level. The scary sights of this story aren't obvious ones like big scary monsters. They're more subtle, unnerving and existential. Under these circumstances, a descent into madness feels understandable and inevitable.

And that's a big part of what makes this such an effective and scary story. Through narration and art, the entire creative team brings to life a world that is bleak enough as is, and then they effectively weave in a whole lot of existential supernatural terror. Black Stars Above is a story that will scare you in the best possible way.

[Issue #3 of Black Stars Above is available on 1/29, from Vault Comics]