“I enjoy doing all these crosshatching details, you just got to do it for the love of it. I once got a letter from a guy who said he loved my crosshatching more than he loved getting stoned. Its things like that that make it all worth it.” – Robert Crumb
Context: I first heard about Chris Wright on the Comic Books are Burning in Hell podcast (an episode entitled Violencia!) and picked up his book called Blacklung. It’s his first major work and there isn’t much of him other than a smaller comic called Inkweed from Sparkplugs books, which I now need to hunt down.
Story: A bookish sixteenth century teacher finds himself accidentally aboard a ship of bandits who partake in a level of violence and comradery that opens his eyes to a different kind of human interaction, suffering and violence. The captain of the ship – taken over by a delusional vision of reuniting with his dead wife in hell – commits as many evil acts as he can. And as the crew falls into an abyss of violence, our main character slowly finds himself fitting in.
Influences and background: Wright’s drawings take their cue from older cartoonists like E. C. Segar and Frank King. Parallels can also be seen in a piece like Louis Riel, but maybe that’s only because he shares some of Chester Brown’s same influences. As an image maker, film seems to be a big thing with Wright as we see glimpses of Bergman and Peckinpah seep into his tale, but I can’t help but sense some of Cormac McCarthy and Melville’s imaginings have found their way in this as well.
Look and feel: Wright is a great character designer. His world is inhabited by Jim Henson-like fuzzy balloon beasts that give off the feeling of being bendable and solid at the same time. An interesting contrast is achieved when these puffy creatures engage with and inhabit the more realistic background elements that frame the story.
His line is not about elegantly inked curves but the metallic scratch of a nib pen scraping against the tooth of the page. These scrapings show a unique command of composing gradients, were blacks are mixed in with various tones of greys that are a compendium of obsessive cross hatchings.
At the core of Blacklung is an affirmation to explore the limits of extreme violence through harsh imagery. The cartoony style used throughout creates a strong contrast against the violence that allows it, at first glance, to be more palpable. But he soon takes advantage of the elastic and bendable nature of his characters as the imagery drives forward into mutilations, lashings and torture, pushing the limits of what can be done to a human body.
The abnormally oversized book allows for Wright to physically pack in more panels than we usually see, and from my understanding the question of size also got in the way of him finding a publisher. The book needed to be printed big.
Wright sticks to a pretty simple plot and works within the action-adventure-pirate genre, but allows for a pretty loose narrative that ends up focusing more on character behavior then plot. The book does build up to a climax and has all the elements needed to satisfy someone looking for a story with momentum (although some have found the ending’s resolution lacking, which has not been a problem for me). Infused in the text are biblical overtones that pack the dialogue with a heaviness … no doubt Melville and McCarthy are living in these pages in one form or another. And in a Deadwoodian fashion, curse words and insults are aplenty. I am always fascinated when a story finds a way to pull me in and get me involved and engaged with unlikable, mean characters. I’m not sure I sympathize with the outcome for most of them, but I was surprised to have such an affection for the cast on repeated readings.
Favorite page: Part Empire Strikes Back, part belly of the whale – a man is stuffed into the water beast after being found guilty of keeping a woman on the boat and using her for his own sexual pleasure. This is the first encounter the main protagonist (and the reader) has with the crew, setting the chaotic tone that will eventually overtake the story. Albeit being grotesque, there is something attractive about its dreamlike imagery.
Favorite panel: A big bulky character called Sweany is the dark centre of the story and where Wright can really unleash his ugliest depictions of man’s unconscious sadistic impulses. Sweany reminds me of Blood Meridian’s main character, but without the moral codes. Here we see Sweany – calm and collected, after torturing the captain of a ship and his crew – slowly adding to his trophy, one tongue at a time. (I can’t help but be reminded of how my family used to decorate our x-mas tree by slipping popcorn together in a similar fashion).
Criticism: The characters in the story can be broken up into archetypes (strong character, smart character, naïve character, weak character). Not a bad thing, but at times it was hard to keep track of who was who. Especially when it came to a few of the “big /strong” characters. I had to make quick sketches of faces so as not to be confused when certain references were made.