Writer: Lonnie Nadler Art: Jenna Cha Publisher: Vault Comics
WHAT IS IT?
A chilling, late-1800s tale of terror.
Like a Cthulic version of the movie, The VVitch, it has a quiet tension, and there's also that question in the back of your mind on if this is a story about the supernatural, or if it's just capturing the insanity of one or more characters' minds.
WHAT'S IT ABOUT?
Eulalie Dubois sits writing, her house surrounded by snow. Her family is poor, growing poorer with the changing times.
There might be a way out of it for all of them, but Eulalie doesn't like it. But when she gets a mysterious task handed to her, she may just use it as an opportunity to change the life set out for her.
Little does Eulalie know, she's in a horror comic. One that has animals with inky black wells where their eyes should be, and strange, black stars above.
Black Stars Above feels like a slow build in the best way, building up the terror as we go along. Jenna Cha's world is cold, isolated, and menacing. You feel like you're present there, with the characters, and because of that, you feel a danger lurking in the hauntingly-lit, detailed visuals, ready to swallow you up.
Cha's panels are stark and orderly, almost formally so, likely mirroring Eulalie's rigid and mannerly life. Seeing it break down later is a clever use of the medium to tell a story through tone, but even the smaller violations of this style, like snow blowing into the pages' gutters, add much to the title's atmosphere. I have a feeling we'll see more of this tactic used throughout the series.
Letterer Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou matches those panels smartly, with rectangular word balloons for most characters. The borders, though, are a bit ragged. This does two things: for one, it brings a human aspect to those balloons. So often, clean rectangles are used for balloons attached to more robotic speech, which wouldn't feel right for this comic. But those ragged borders also help you imagine a texture to characters' voices, almost like the cold taken a toll on them.
Jenna Cha showcases her tremendous skill in other ways in this book, from transitions unified by theme and action to a splash page that's as terrifying as it is ensorcelling.
Part of that devolution of order or manners or sanity is also shown well through Brad Simpson's application of color. Simpson keeps most scenes to warm, earthy tones or frigid, cool ones, only mixing the two for a contrast of environment or to punctuate an emotional scene. Red is almost never present, even on the package in the comic's interior. But we know from the cover, shown above, that it is likely to have a greater infernal purpose.
Knowing Lonnie Nadler wrote everything with Zac Thompson before he wrote this comic had me a little worried it might not have the same polish that their previous titles had. But Nadler writes confidently; the narrative is tight, and there's a promise of a well-planned sequence of events in the future. It's so much easier to invest in a new title when it feels like there's a plan for the series. This first issue sets everything up – our protagonist and her motivation, the McGuffin, the black stars' presence and potential role, and one hell of a creepy tone.
The way Eulalie writes reveals a lot about her character. For example, she crosses out "people" and replaces it with "we," almost as if she sees herself apart from other people, but corrects herself, like she doesn't want to admit it to herself or whoever she's writing to.
Black Stars Above is a quiet comic. That's not to say there isn't much in the way in captions or dialogue. In fact, there's a lot of both, though Otsmane-Elhaou deftly places all of it (and finds solutions for multiple languages spoken) without you ever registering how much of the page is given to text. But the title is quiet in that you imagine it without a soundtrack, if that makes sense. The quiet of the book is palpable, smothering, helping to build that terror.
Tim Daniel's logo design is detailed and elegant and, paired with the book's design, captures the overall tone of the comic in a way I can't quite pinpoint with words.
There are other parts of this issue that I loved, small things that had a great effect. Eulalie writing the letter (or journal) on Krampusnacht. Later, in bed but not asleep, lying like a corpse under a sheet. Matches that look like they might be called "Lucifers," a sinister name that also evokes "light."
Love that our protagonist is a strong woman of mixed heritage.
WHAT DOESN'T WORK?
If you read digitally, on your phone, it can be a bit hard to make out the handwritten captions without zooming in. However, it'd feel a bit silly not to have a handwritten typeface for her letter, so I don't think this is Otsmane-Elhaou's fault – it's just a comic best read physically or on a tablet.
As previously mentioned, it's a bit of a slow burn. While Black Stars Above is a "horror" comic, it seems to focus more on building terror, which isn't for folks expecting blood and gore and gross monsters in the first issue. How effective it is as a horror comic will rely on future issues, but damn if this isn't a promising start.
WHY SHOULD I READ IT?
Black Stars Above is immediately, intensely unsettling. It builds tension quietly, intensely, and while we do not know where the story is taking us, it's clear that it will spell trouble for our protagonist.
I can't wait to see where this team takes us.
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
If you like the writing:
Her Infernal Descent by Lonnie Nadler, Zac Thompson & Kyle Charles
Gideon Falls by Jeff Lemire & Andrea Sorrentino
If you like the art:
The Chill by Junji Ito
Road of Bones by Rich Douek & Alex Cormack
Cold Spots by Cullen Bunn & Mark Torres
ABOUT THE CREATORS
Lonnie Nadler – Writer
Dream Team: Has written several comics with writing partner, Zac Thompson
New Face: This is his first solo comic
Outlander: Lives in Canada, where Black Stars Above likely takes place
Jenna Cha – Illustrator
Definitely seems to gravitate toward horror genres
New Face: This is her first comic
Dream Team: According to her Instagram, it sounds like she and Nadler will create another comic together next year, that she will co-write
Brad Simpson – Colorist
Tends to take on a lot of the darker, moodier, more supernatural projects
Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou – Letterer
Multitalented: Edits PanelxPanel, the digital magazine about comics, and also writes comics & films
Outlander: Lives in the southwest of England
Has a comics podcast with Aditya Bidikar called Letters & Lines
Adrian F. Wassel – Editor
Name Recognition: Is the CCO & Editor-In-Chief of Vault Comics, and plays the role of editor on most, if not all, of Vault's titles
Also runs Vault with his brother and father
Has personally helped other comics creators in their endeavors, even for non-Vault comics work
Tim Daniel – Designer
Multitalented: Also was the writer on Vault title, Fissure
Inspired by others in the business: Sonia Harris, Sean Phillips, and Fonographics
Dream Team: Co-wrote Curse, Burning Fields & The Plot with Michael Moreci
HOW DO I BUY IT?
Issue #1 drops this Wednesday. Click one of these to pre-order it:
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