Black Birch Volume 1: The Hooke Family

Small town life can be hard enough, but imagine if your town used its female population merely to breed children for profit. Such horror is all too real in Eduardo Cintron and Juan Doe’s Black Birch.

A pregnant woman prepares to give birth in Black Birch

The small American town of Black Birch seems like any other except for one thing: its inhabitants follow a strange old tradition, where everyone is looked after in a communal sense, but every family’s first-born child is sold to outsiders for profit. In this closed close-knit society, relationships are prearranged and, on the surface at least, it seems to work. The parents have been indoctrinated to be accepting of the situation since birth and the town’s elders, who’ve lived their lives in the system, show no signs of introducing change. Enough money is made from the transactions to keep everyone housed and fed. Scratch the surface, however, and there’s trouble brewing.

Things kick off, as you know they will, when a feisty young teenager called Hazel starts to question whether she wants to be married off and see her children sold. Further revelations, which I won’t spoil here, start to show that the cracks in the system are actually deep, festering wounds. What follows is an intense, darkly violent story of control and compliance, as Hazel attempts to strike a new path away from the town’s twisted traditions.

Hazel and Nick share a secret in Black Birch

Juan Doe’s art is a pleasure to behold. His characters have a lightness of touch that carries their personality and emotion, but it’s communicated simply in a line, a pose or a demeanor. It’s not complex, detailed drawing, but it carries the story along at a perfect pace. The colours have a natural richness to them, drenched in light from the stormy skies but darkly shadowed by the hidden world of the town’s child trafficking.

The story, written by Eduardo Cintron, is hard-hitting and well paced. There’s depth here but I was crying out for more. The town’s story is so alien to normal sensibilities, yet dealt with so matter-of-factly, that nuance is lost to incredulity. I had to go back and spend more cognitive time tracing the relationships between the characters to get a better grasp on the graphically violent middle act, and to help unlock the reasons for the surprise ending.

I have a niggling doubt that not enough is on display in this first volume because it doesn’t quite add up. We see flashes of a nursery literally thronged with babies in cribs, and a church-like town hall full of pregnant mothers, but the focus of this story is so tightly aimed on two families, that it’s hard to see how the town’s dark business could work. Hopefully this will be exposed in more detail in subsequent volumes.

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