“BLACK JACK KETCHUM #1” (Comic Book Review)Book and Comic Reviews,Books/Art/Culture,News Svetlana Fedotov
One of the most popular yet understated subgenres of horror comics in 2015 has undoubtedly been Weird Westerns. Heavy booted rustlers and ruffled women have been clashing with supernatural forces on the pages of such works as Dark Horse’s THE STEAM MAN, IDW’s FISTFUL OF BLOOD, and Image’s newest release, BLACK JACK KETCHUM. A work that walks the line between our reality and the ones behind the veil, BLACK JACK KETCHUM takes the standard outlaw tale and drops it in a SANDMAN-esque story where nothing is really what it seems. Throw in a mute girl with a shotgun and a case of mistaken identity and you got yourself a tale worth its buffalo hide.
The story revolves around a down-and-out fellow on the run named Tom Ketchum, based on the real-life outlaw of the same name. Mistaken for an outlaw named Black Jack Ketchum, he is pursued from town to town by human-like creatures named The Dusters, while, oddly, talking to a sentient gun. He’s quick to escape capture as he enters a saloon and hops from his dimension to the next via a door portal. And this is just in the first few pages. As the story progresses, we are introduced to a whole manner of bizarre characters, from outlaws who are determined to bring Ketchum’s head in for Black Jack’s bounty to the enigmatic power trio of The Banker, The Rancher, and The Rail Baron, who live and die between the worlds. As Ketchum struggles to survive the harsh and ever-changing environment, he must also struggle with his own identity and the weight that comes with it.
BLACK JACK KETCHUM, for lack of a better word, is super weird. The physical world of BLACK JACK KETCHUM is fantastically dreamlike and has the perfect amount of attention grabbing without completely swamping the reader with disjointed mania. The landscapes, the dimension jumping, the odd creatures; its visual appeal sits in the perfect place between the familiar and the subconscious, much like early Vertigo works. The character design is pretty fun as well, especially with The Dusters, who resemble the Dementors from HARRY POTTER but with big hats and faces made out of stars. While it seems like the comic would be hard to relate to, like a poem written by a mystic cat, Tom Ketchum serves as a great medium with his questionable grip on the world, much like us when we read the comic.
The only complaint is that there is perhaps too much set-up and not enough explanation. The beauty of the comic comes from its weirdness, but it does need some clarification at least about its basic mechanics (such as, well, the dimension hopping and the talking gun.) There are way too many questions than answers and it feels like the comic is crafting two mysteries: how the world works and who/what/why Tom Ketchum is, instead of focusing on one or the other. It gets a bit frustrating when the reader makes his way through the work and all you know is that you don’t know anything.
The writer of the series, Brian Schirmer, is a new kid on the block, with his claim to fame coming from the web comic ULTRASYLVANIA, a story of various creatures of the night who hold an immense amount of power over the human world. With BLACK JACK KETCHUM, we see his first dip into the big, bad world of monthly comics. As stated, he designs a good world and has great ideas and despite the minor frustrations of the first issue, this is a solid start to a new career. It’ll be interesting to see not only where the comic goes but where he goes with his grandiose visions of the world. The artist Claudia Balboni, has a solid grasp of comic and cinematic layout, creating some interesting panel layouts and fun action shots while still keeping true to human anatomy. Having primarily worked on comic adaptations of movies and TV shows, it’s interesting to see her work on an original product and her creativity on the designs works well with Schirmer’s ideas.
An odd but compelling read, BLACK JACK KETCHUM presents a supernatural mystery in the last wild place of the American frontier; a place where anything can happen and it does. While if BLACK JACK KETCHUM remains to be seen as the next major horror read, those interested can check out BLACK JACK KETCHUM now, as the comic is currently on shelves.