There’s something of a trend in comics for ultra-violent stories designed to shock and disturb. Blacklung is part of this movement, but with a rich and interesting plot behind it, the juxtaposition of horror and literary merit make a powerful combination.
The story starts in a lawless ghetto port, where hard men rule the streets at night, and the rich turn a blind eye and hope trouble will never reach them. Murder, gang war and prostitution are rife, and a hierarchy of psychopathy decides who’s the boss.
One night a gang member gets into a fight with another and ends up press-ganged into service on a pirate ship. Quite by chance, another man is captured too – an upper-class school teacher. The teacher has been turning a blind eye to the disappearance of school children on the cruel streets, but he’s about to get first-hand experience of how violent and horrific the world of Blacklung can be.
The ship is run by a pirate captain whose goal in life is to kill. Ironically, it’s not because he’s particularly evil, but because he wants a guaranteed path to Hell. He’s convinced that’s where his beloved deceased wife will be, so he’s slaughtering his way to a romantic reunion. With a crew of bloodthirsty cut-throats in his charge, the trading vessels he meets don’t stand a chance. The teacher, however, manages to escape being killed for his uselessness in battle by becoming the captain’s scribe, and writing down the captain’s thoughts and motivations for posterity.
The characters are a motley bunch. Chris Wright has stripped them of much obvious humanity, giving them a unique variety of odd-shaped heads, and black and white markings. Their faces are a patchwork of badly stitched wounds, many of which look like the injuries that created them should have left them dead. The drawing style appears simple at first but it oozes character, and the dark, scratchy style may leave you thankful for its lack of fine detail when the violence and horror kicks in.
There is a lot of blood shed. The pirates are ruthless and slaughter the crews of their conquests with brutal efficiency. Captains and captives are tortured and the horror is cranked up throughout the book, as it reaches its epic crescendo in the final scene.
This is not a book for the faint-hearted, but if you can handle the horror, it has a lot going for it. The characters have enormous depth, and the book explores interesting themes on the nature of violence. It’s particularly strong on class structure, exploring the different levels of what’s acceptable to different people in different walks of life. The captain himself is fascinating – clearly a religious man, he kills to wave an angry fist in the face of his god, and to be reunited with his lost love, in a mad whirlwind of wretched tragedy.
The story is detailed and finely crafted. While the violence is extreme in places, it can’t be gratuitous when the story needs it to be like this, to dispel any of the romance of what these dark and very fearsome individuals are capable of.
While extremely dark this is definitely one of the most sophisticated horror books I’ve read in some time. If you can handle the violence and the psychopathic characters, you’ll be rewarded with a rich, engaging story. It’s strange, disturbing and very, very compelling.