BLACK STARS ABOVE
Writer: Lonnie Nadler
Illustrator: Jenna Cha
Publisher: Vault Comics
WHAT IS IT?
A cosmic horror mini-series set in late 19th century Northern Canada.
Think The Revenant (2015) meets At the Mountains of Madness with a chaser of The Last of Us.
WHAT'S IT ABOUT?
At the end of a brutally sparse trapping season, Eulalie DuBois's family faces a harsh winter with little in the way of food or supplies. When a solution is offered, that Eulalie be married off and the family abandon their home, Eulalie tries to reject it; however, she isn't given a choice and it appears that she will be shipped off against her will.
Then, on a routine trek into town, Eulalie is offered a proposal by a tall, unsettling British man. For two hundred dollars (fifty upfront, the rest upon delivery), she must take the package to the town north of the woods. Leaving her initial payment with her family, she sneaks off in the night to make the journey.
Eulalie is immediately faced with hardship as a devastating storm rolls in. In her attempt to set up shelter, she finds that her matches will not light. When she peers out into the dark, the sky peers back down upon her with black stars and the package she carries cries out to her. What has she agreed to carry, and what horrors will she face to see it delivered?
Nadler's horror writing is spot-on, evoking the tense uncertainty and unsettling revelations that form the backbone of all great horror stories.
If there's one flawless feature of Black Stars Above, it's Jenna Cha's beautifully textured, effortlessly detailed artwork. This book has much more to offer, but is worth reading for the illustration alone.
Brad Simpson's coloring work not only evokes the time period in an interesting and seamless fashion, but communicates the relentless cold and unforgiving wilderness that makes up the body of the setting. It's hard to keep from shivering as you read Black Stars Above.
Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou uses lettering in inventive and stunning ways. The constant scratching out of words and thoughts to indicate uncertainty and gorgeous use of script evoke a wonderful sense of personality to the characters, the story, and the reading experience.
The unique setting is a breath of fresh air; rarely do we as an audience get to read stories outside of a few distinct, familiar places and times (New York, Victorian England, sleepy pacific northwest town, etc). I found myself genuinely excited to visit a place and culture outside of that narrow circle.
Likewise, placing a Métis woman at the heart of the story not only gives us a unique perspective, but bolsters the story's themes of agency and its motif of "the in-between."
The take on cosmic horror in this book is familiar while retaining its own identity and sense of originality. I'll discuss this more later, but it's wonderful to see cosmic horror that amounts to more than "wasn't Lovecraft great?"
The embracing of inky blacks in this book is striking, especially against the stark whites of the snowy Canadian wilderness. The use of contrast in general is excellent, both in the art and the writing, and makes for a compelling reading experience.
The book has a lot to say, particularly about nihilism, relativism, and agency; it's a book that makes you meditate on ideas beyond what is put directly in front of you and that should be celebrated.
The central relationship (can't elaborate for fear of spoilers) is well developed and drives the story organically. That sounds run-of-the-mill, but the circumstances surrounding that relationship and the lack of communication between the two characters necessitated by those circumstances, make building that relationship extremely difficult, but it works regardless.
WHAT DOESN'T WORK?
Black Stars Above goes out of its way to be different and eschew comic book conventions; much of the time this pays off, but almost all of the flaws are a result of trying too hard to be different or innovative to the detriment of the story, for instance:
The cursive script used throughout the book can be difficult to read at times with f's and b's looking similar and h's being difficult to distinguish from n's. Furthermore, the use of square speech bubbles for almost all dialogue is more distracting than anything else.
There's a sequence in the middle of the third issue where, for several pages, we're expected to read a journal with no illustration or visual variance. This kills the pacing from an exciting sprint to a painful crawl and honestly made me less enthusiastic about the project as a whole. It seems petty, but in a story with art this striking, taking a seven- or eight-page detour to read what amounts to someone else's account of things we've already seen or are going to see feels like a massive waste of time and the story is worse for it.
There's perhaps a bit too much thematic meandering from the narration. The book gives plenty of ideas to chew on, but forcing a live commentary on them from the book's protagonist in real-time makes it less enjoyable for the audience to consider those ideas for themselves. For a story so concerned with agency, it doesn't seem to have much faith in the reader's ability to read into its meaning.
WHY SHOULD I READ IT?
Cosmic horror is a criminally underserved niche. When an attempt is made to tap into the genre, far too often all that is accomplished is a rehashing of the ideas of a long-dead racist; most of the time, this laziness extends to lifting elements directly from that universe, directly evoking figures like Cthulhu and Eldritch cultists. Truly original cosmic horror is rare, but when it does show up, it often strikes at something profound and is met with ravenous praise.
Black Stars Above stands much like Bloodborne before it as a beacon of interesting ideas and unique execution, breathing fresh life into the genre and delivering truly compelling themes and a wonderful narrative to a starving audience. If you like horror, you'll love this book. If you like unique settings and diverse protagonists, you'll love this book. If you like chewing over themes, philosophies, and ideas long after you've closed the book and put it back on the shelf, you should definitely read Black Stars Above.
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
If you like the writing:
Her Infernal Descent by Lonnie Nadler & Zac Thompson
The Boy with Nails for Eyes by Shaun Gardiner
Hotell by John Lees & Dalabor Talajic
If you like the art:
Mountainhead by John Lees & Ryan Lee
Coffin Bound by Dan Watters & Dani (No, I will not now, nor ever stop recommending this comic)
Cult Classic: Creature Feature by Eliot Rahal & John Bivins
ABOUT THE CREATORS
Lonnie Nadler – Writer
Name Recognition: Has recently done tons of work with Marvel including X-men Black, Cable, and Edge of Spider-Geddon.
Multitalented: Works as a filmmaker specializing in short films and documentaries
Outlander(ish): From film wonderland Vancouver, Canada which gives him a loose connection to the subject matter of Black Stars Above.
Jenna Cha – Artist
New Face: Black Stars Above is Jenna's first published comic. Way to hit the ground running!
Graduate of Minneapolis College of Art
Everything she draws makes me deeply uncomfortable which she almost certainly takes as a compliment.
Brad Simpson – Colorist
Multitalented: Brad got his start as an oil painter before being drafted into comics by Nick Dragotta (of East of West fame).
Prolific: Despite only starting in comics six years ago, Simpson has a list of credits the length of his arm.
Though dabbling in all sorts of work, Brad's work is especially striking and fitting on pieces like Sex, Bloodborne, and Coffin Bound.
Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou – Letters
Award Winner: Won the 2018 Golden Issue award for Best Letterer from Comicbook.com.
Multitalented: In addition to being an excellent letterer, he, like Nadler, directs award winning short films.
Outlander: Native of the United Kingdom, informing his short film Supermen: A Story of British Wrestlers.
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