This is a painful book to read. It's brutally intense, sometimes horrifically intense, with all kinds of terrible dehumanizing terrors being visited upon the book's characters. Black Lung is violent and vicious and vehemently its own thing with a very strange, often off-putting art style that takes a long time for the reader to feel comfortable.
This is also a really outstanding book, a remarkable example of the indie comic sensibility on display on the comics page. I find myself haunted by the powerful grimness of this story, dwelling constantly on the mysteries of the human soul on display in Black Lung.
Chris Wright seems to channel Melville or Conrad in this book as he explores the uniquely idiosyncratic world that he creates. There's a great sense of characters completely out of control of their own lives but instead being trapped by the events that are forced upon them or by their personalities or histories, or even the fact that they've been shanghaied to join a pirate crew completely against their will.
As you can see from the pages scattered throughout this review, this book starts with a brutal murder that both sets the tone of the book and the plot into motion. A giant drunken man is being teased by a group of kids in a bar. "You're fucking dead!" he screams, and with a giant brutal paw grabs one child and proceeds to beat the living shit out of the kid. It's one of the most vicious moments I can remember ever seeing in comics, and it feels even more brutal because at that point in the book we don't know what to expect out of this book. We see these anthropomorphic characters running around with their different-colored fur and their bare paws sticking out of their pant legs and immediately expect something light and sweet. Instead we get bare-knuckled brutality, which the kids handle with an equally terrifying casualness.
The opening scene puts readers on notice: this story isn't some sort of comfortable story of fuzzy pirates; instead, it will be a brutal, horrific story in which people are constantly fighting to have some semblance of control over their lives.
The murder affects one of the kids more than some of his friends, and the next day at school he tells his teacher about the events he witnessed. The schoolteacher, Isaac, is a very cultured man, the opposite of the brutal fighting drunkards we've just seen. Isaac is a Shakespeare scholar who can speak with great wisdom about the life of King Lear, but he's also blind to the real moral quandaries that he sees around him. Isaac is unable or unwilling to recognize that the kid's death is a terrible event; that blindness leads to a series of events that places Isaac on board a pirate ship where he will experience a series of mutilating indignities.
These pirates are completely unlike the kind of nice, homogenized pirates that you might see in a Johnny Depp movie. The pirates are an unbelievably brutal bunch; a group of syphilitic, insane, raping, death dealing, casually mutilating monsters. But they also have a surprising amount of depth and complexity in their souls, an off-puttingly multifaceted inner life that stands in stark and surprising contrast to their incredible physicality.
I keep coming back to the strange, almost paradoxical complexity of the characters and events in this book. Wright's artwork also shows that weird dichotomy, with his completely unique art style. In some ways it reminds me of some of the best early 20th century comic strips with its light linework, mid-range camera angles and detailed crosshatching. But nobody has ever created characters that look like the characters in this book, with their strange faces and lumpy, malformed bodies. There's a weird sort of lumbering, chubby thickness to these characters that gives them a feeling of massiveness, of taking up a surprising amount of space on the panel and page that gives these characters heft and massiveness.
Wright also draws a very dirty world, a world filled with grime and stains; sometimes from blood, sometimes from food, sometimes just from the brutal way that characters treat each other. His crosshatching doesn't illuminate. Instead it muddies: it muddies the panels and makes them slower to read through, and it muddies the world that the characters live in, symbolically adding levels of complexity and detail that make these characters' world even more challenging.
This is one of those books that defy easy explanation. Chris Wright's Black Lung is a brutal and complex book. It's bleak and vicious and at times even dehumanizing for its characters. Black Lung was one of the most challenging books I read in 2012. It forces the reader to challenge his initial expectations, his perceptions of characters as the book goes on, and of the morality of the world that Wright creates. This slim graphic novel is a dense read unlike anything else you've read in comics.