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Black Stars Above TPB Comic Book Review

Black Stars Above- TPB

Writer: Lonnie Nadler
Artist: Jenna Cha
Colours: Brad Simpson
Letters: Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou
Publisher: Vault Comics

What’s the story in Black Stars Above?

Black Stars Above is five issues of dense, dreamy wilderness horror that attempts to deepen the comics reading experience into something extraordinary and overwhelming. Eulalie, a girl of Métis-French ancestry, must deliver a strange package to a town far north of her home. As she travels, the world falls apart around her. In more ways than one.

As Above, So Below

Visually, Black Stars Above is unapologetically archetypal and strange, and charts a sensory course that feels at odds with its detailed dialogue and narration. Some of that tension and duality is necessary. The book deals with the increasingly fallible desire to impose order on absolute chaos, and Eulalie’s subsequent self-actualization. However, Nadler packs Eulalie’s writing so densely with solipsism and metaphor that we risk losing the thread entirely. At its most obtuse moments, Black Stars Above feels less like a tenuous bubble of meaning swirling in a nightmare and more like a lot of work to read. At its best, the comic blends hallucinatory landscapes with inexplicable weirdness out on the edge of something horrific, and there are glimpses of brilliance.

Cha’s art is what makes the book, but given the difficulty in deciphering the various scripts and the town’s odd dialect. There is an argument to be made here for a silent, or close-to-silent, comic. 

One element of textual density to slow us down would work – the diary, the narration or the dialect. However taken all together, the book suffers from an inability to maintain its tension because it’s trying too hard to dictate our pace. Black Stars Above is too aware of its own reality-puncturing potential to achieve it. Eulalie’s narration is important to the overall structure of the book and its themes, true, but there is so much to read at all times that there’s not enough time to stop and linger on Cha’s increasingly bizarre landscapes and page-distorting perspectives. The true oddness comes in the images she chooses to juxtapose, and in Simpson’s keen attention to a balanced palette.

Simpson’s reds, sunsets and, later, a blend of the two as Eulalie travels further and further north, and the overall palette blends an impressive array of grays, browns and whites into an otherworldly wilderness. Even from the beginning of the book, the warm nighttime glow of Eulalie’s family cabin can’t eclipse the deep sickness of the forest hues outside. Red is a very common motif, and it’s overused in many cases. Simpson puts it to excellent use in “Black Stars Above,” and every instance matters. 

Eyes Like Stars

Putting a full diary into the middle of a comic is a choice. Is it an effective one?

If you like to read and you’re into slow-burn literary comics, yes. If you find the epistolary format in comics a bit of a trial, this might be a deal-breaker. The character’s perspective is an interesting one and deals with the endless navel-gazing of the colonial outsider in the wilderness.

Gradually, it morphs into something more surreal and compelling. However, there are some problems with the font, and the length of the section makes them difficult to ignore. The Fs look like Bs, open as they are, and they’re frequent enough to irritate the eye and impede a smooth read. The Bs, in turn, look like squashed upper-case Gs, which leads to the same problem. Closing each letter would help general coherence, especially considering Black Stars Above trucks in heavy, cerebral content. Anything that threatens to break our concentration in a book like this is more of a blow than, say, awkward anatomy in a superhero fight scene.

Eulalie’s narration is likely an easier read in print, but the digital experience is a challenge. Cha’s layouts are subtly complex and worth taking time to dig into. Panel borders erode as strangeness overtakes the page. Snow swirls in dizzying eddies across our vision and, as the book progresses, linear reading breaks down in some places. Having to zoom in on Otsmane-Elhaou’s delicate font choice breaks this experience down somewhat, and Nadler’s intricacy demands a level of attention that, frankly, leads to eye strain. The details don’t linger and unsettle like they should because we’re too busy reading text aiming for the lyric. The art has that more than covered, and not letting it breathe is a bit of a shame.

New Frontiers

Overall, someone looking for a unique, literary or heavy horror experience should try Black Stars Above because it definitely pushes the boat out. Books that try should be rewarded for the attempt, and for some, this attempt will be a good one. For me, it does not quite hit the mark and stutters under the weight of solipsistic meanderings. Thinning that narration to its marrow, even gradually, would make the book shine, and Cha’s art could take center stage. Pick this one up in print if you can.

 

More Vault Comic book reviews can be found here: Shadow Service| Bleed Them Dry| She Said Destroy 2|


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