Score: 4

Elusory and wistful yet bleak, Black Cloud wonders aloud if stories trap us as much as inspire us

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Advance Review: Black Cloud #1

By Jason Latour, Ivan Brandon, Greg Hinkle, and Matt Wilson

There’s a scene in a Season 9 episode of The Simpsons where Homer is watching Twin Peaks and reacts as follows; “Brilliant! I have absolutely no idea what’s going on.” While reading Black Cloud #1, we are all Homer Simpson. This is not the case insomuch as one is left dumbfounded, but rather inexplicably enticed by the proposals laid bare in Black Cloud. What drives someone to become a refugee from a land that no one wants to leave? A place where our stories, and thus our dreams and fears and hopes, have real tangible power and sway. What becomes of this elusory expatriate in our harsh reality? Latour and Brandon’s script delights in opening the door for you without offering a helping hand through it, while the deadly tandem of Hinkle and Wilson induce an absinthe-tinged peregrination. Illusory and wistful yet bleak, Black Cloud wonders aloud if stories trap us as much as inspire us.

Stories about stories are well-trodden ground, such as can be found in the works of Salman Rushdie or Neil Gaiman, but Black Cloud interjects an added dimension of social commentary. The biggest draw to this debut issue is unquestionably the lush and imaginative visuals from Hinkle and Wilson, but the unnamed protagonist at the heart of the narrative is inescapably entrancing. Brandon and Latour introduce a female POC that can speak not only of the wondrous, but also of the brushed aside facets of our world. For as coyly as she talks about her home world (realm? dimension?) she in turn dissects the grim truths about the broken members of our society: “No one cares about our stories. No one listens. Those who make it out are mostly on the street. Broken. No one wants to tell that story.” Because that’s the thing, and Brandon and Latour touch on it just the right amount here, we all have stories, but few are willing to hear them in lieu of the sedatives of modern hedonism. Those dismissed as undesirable must keep their stories to themselves.

Keeping her unnamed (although solicits will tell you her name is Zelda, one that might rouse images of adventures in fantasy lands for many) is a smart choice here. It keeps her distanced from the reader just enough to keep her in that well balanced role of mysterious sage and real world outsider. In her world, she is unspeakably powerful (the denizens there literally will not utter her name) but in ours she begs for change, sleeps on benches, and tricks affluent youth into thinking she peddles only the finest of psychotropic drugs. This inverted balance of power is fascinating and she displays roguish street smarts and omniscient mysticism with equal aplomb. While the rules of how this universe operates are frustratingly out of one’s grasp (that is how dreams work, though, isn’t it?) and most of the supporting cast lacking any real depth, our storyteller’s storyteller is bewitching. Literally.

Look, let’s get right to it: the art is the reason to pick up Black Cloud #1 and the art is the reason you’ll be buying issue #2. Greg Hinkle is one of the finest cartoonists you’ll find in comics right now and as impressive as his knack for delivering wonderfully expressive characters is, it’s his storytelling ability (how apropos!) that makes the biggest impression. Throughout Black Cloud, you always know where you are, even when you’re not sure where that is exactly. Hinkle marries establishing shots with subtly detailed backgrounds with the end result being an unmistakable sense of a place’s essence. Beyond the dead-on Manhattan skyline there’s the steam from manholes, the dimly lit underpasses, the pushed aside debris, and stout hot dog stands all adding texture that informs the story without overtaking it. With the flip of the page Hinkle just as easily transports us, like the naïve Todd, to an unknown world we’d know anywhere; a late 1920s big band club with lingering cigarette smoke and Deco décor. The point is, Hinkle makes the myriad realities rich and makes them each rich for different reasons, be it the Inception of the mind dream world or the eerily accurate Big Apple. It all serves to moor (and unmoor, too for that matter) the thematic elements of how stories present limitless possibilities and how limiting that sometimes can be.

Of course, Hinkle’s distinct rendering style with its blocky angular exaggerations are what sell these characters as real. Raised eyebrows and slumped shoulders and knowing smiles tell bigger stories here than the words ever could. There’s an elasticity to Hinkle’s figure work that translates directly to the panel flow and every beat between gutters is naturally filled, interrupted only occasionally and wisely when characters overlap borders as part of the effect of the dream world not being bound by traditional physical rules. That energy is at its peak when Todd and Zelda escape the club in a three page sequence that’s beautiful cinematic in how the camera perspective comfortably rotates around a would-be romantic moment only to zoom back out with the arrival of a new (yet very old) threat. The full 360 degree experience is marvelously paced and possibly the best sequence in the book.

If Hinkle’s building the visual language, than it’s Matt Wilson who’s adding that quintessential accent in which it’s spoken. Black Cloud incorporates color into its plot like few other stories do, so Wilson’s choices here are more intricate than simply complementing the tone. Wilson needs to shift between granular grey tones reminiscent of old film or static reception on antenna television, and vibrantly saturated palette that reflects Zelda’s power of imagination in her home. Opening with an umber and amber hued scene that conveys a bleak long ago era, Wilson than throws chromatic grenades all over the place with an optimistic cerulean adorned city in Fall followed by magenta backlit indoor pool coolness. Since the color largely serves to illustrate the power of storytellers, with their bold and electric ability to summon and manipulate wonders, Wilson introduces color in the black and white scenes effectively. Perhaps the most stunning moment isn’t where color is strongly contrasting, but where it begins to fade off Zelda in the rain as both her and her powers begin to drain with the arrival of an adversary.

Black Cloud #1 is a wonder; it’s a ballad about ballads, and a story that knows the power of stories. Though it may be unafraid to throw you in head first, it does so while tossing you everything you need to float right around you to grab on your own. Hinkle and Wilson deliver the depth to the depth-less possibilities found in a world built on stories and Brandon and Latour incorporate a relevancy and sense of urgency to help ground it all. You may very well have no idea what’s going on, or if they serve a damn good cup of coffee in Zelda’s world or not, but you won’t care because you’ll be having too much fun being lost.

Black Cloud #1 will be released April 5th from Image Comics

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