Monday, March 18, 2013

The Language of Pain: Black Lung by Chris Wright Reviewed

Black Lung by Chris Wright
Fantagraphics, 2012
It feels like my brain is still trying to digest Black Lung by Chris Wright, an unusual graphic novel of pain and anger and loss from Fantagraphics. The setting is vaguely the mid-nineteenth century, and the initial story threads are spread between an underworld of casual licentiousness and brutality, compassionate higher society, and brutal poverty. The disparate and somewhat meandering story threads coalesce with shocking frenzy into the story of a heartless, disgraced teacher getting shanghaied into service on a pirate ship. He becomes victim and witness to unspeakable brutality, and the aims of an intelligent, erudite pirate captain looking to sin as much as possible to reunite with his lover in hell.

The characters and story inhabit a violent and profane world, the vulgarity less like Johnny Ryan and more just an aspect of the reality presented. Wright's cartooning is completely original, his characters grotesqueries of the human form, all disproportionate limbs, asymmetrical bodies, bizarrely decorated heads. This is decidedly different, so other, in a way only achievable in the comic form. The cartooning style here creates a unique effect: when we see atrocities and violence, the unrealistic style forces the reader to build the scene in their mind - like with a novel - but without having to read through descriptions of the horrors. The images are the descriptive language almost like (and decidedly above) simple prose.

The novel climaxes in a torrent of reminiscence, a complete and total breakdown of reality into narrative and visual abstraction. What Wright achieves here is fairly remarkable, an interpretive phantasmagoria of imagery and non-linear cartooning language like the best works of Kevin Huizenga or an unhinged Chris Ware.

In Black Lung Wright presents a world of ceaseless violence and pain, his reflectively brutal cartooning interwoven with elegiac prose, with the very syntax of comic storytelling breaking down under the memory and transformative agony of loss and obsession.

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