It is this quest for knowledge, for understanding in its many forms, that keeps us going as a species and as individuals and so we are always on the precipice of the unknown and the known, and that’s a scary thing to consider.
– Lonnie Nadler
How often can you say you’ve consciously confronted the unknown? In a world with infinite amounts of information at our fingertips, the true unknown isn’t something we have to face very often. When we are confronted with a path without a clear end in sight, it becomes all too easy to turn away with trepidation or look down upon it as an unsafe or unstable choice. But choices make us as much as we make them, and sometimes the unsafe choices are the most important ones to make. As we journey to the past through a character on the precipice of a series of choices that will shape her life, perhaps we’ll gain some insight when dealing with the unknowns we still face today.
Black Stars Above is a child of fate and the uncertainty we have surrounding what lies ahead. Born from Lonnie Nadler, Jenna Cha, Brad Simpson, and Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou, Eulalie’s journey may take place in the Canadian wilderness over 100 years ago, but it could not be closer to what we face today. There is no one element that ever takes precedent in this first issue, as even when horror is the primary focus, the book reads like a historical piece thanks to the research and creative efforts of both writer Lonnie Nadler and new artist Jenna Cha.
The issue takes place in the Canadian wilderness towards the end of the fur trade in North America. This is a major economic shift affecting Eulalie and her family, even though it is never explicitly stated. With their home quite a distance from the nearest town, and only her family for company, it makes sense that Eulalie would long for more. It is not a bad life, and there are many joys, but the mundanity and dissatisfaction are not lost. Keep in mind, however, that this is not where we open. Instead we open with something much more ominous. “I watched and descended. Like a snowflake or a god or both, onto a pale plain. Not a void. But rather a white space to be spotted with life and the darkness that distinguishes us from.” The white and the darkness with only us, life, in between. Are we strong enough to hold that line?
The blanket of white that populates so many panels in this Canadian wilderness is exquisite. White and its neighboring colors are seldom used to their fullest effect in comics, but that is not the case here. Cha expertly captures the beauty of nature on the second page with majestic falling snow, scattered trees, and lynxes traversing the vast expanse. A young trapper lies waiting and writing, clearly starved of food, warmth, shelter, and companionship. Nevertheless life continues. “Amor Fati,” he writes. Then, a lynx gets caught in his trap, and as the man is about to kill it, the lynx turns its head in a manner reminiscent of the great Junji Ito, and only darkness lies where its eyes should be, and as the man reaches towards the lynx’s eye, the darkness falls on his finger and drops to the ground. More importantly, we can appreciate it because of the silence that blankest the scene, giving it an unsettling serenity. Life is the boundary between the beautiful white space and the darkness we are trying to hold back.
This scene could be taken as unrelated to the rest of the issue, but that is clearly not the case. Beyond expertly introducing the consistent and repeated inkblot imagery through an immaculate use of the nine-panel grid, this scene immediately feels connected to the story that follows, unlike some opening horror scenes that can feel disjointed from the rest of the narrative. Nadler put a lot of work and craft into this opening scene and it clearly pays off in how quickly and naturally it establishes tone, atmosphere, and uncertainty.
Black Stars Above is a story that centers around literal and metaphorical journeys. We are introduced to Eulalie as she writes, “I am lost.” Her future as an individual and as a writer have never been more uncertain, and we are inside her head during this critical time in her life. It’s the most intimate place we you can be, and it’s felt almost immediately thanks to the epistolary narrative and singular frame of reference. Eulalie is finding herself at an age where many of us are or were finding ourselves, and her exploration as a writer reveals a number of small truths that we can all learn from. These truths are largely illuminated through the inkblot imagery. From the lynx’s eyes, to the drop on paper, so the shadows that lurk all around the Canadian wilderness, the inkblot imagery represents one of the best visual transitions used this year along while convey the ease in which darkness, fear, and dread can creep into our existences. There are limitless expression, interpretations, and meaning behind the image, and it make you anticipate what lies ahead.
This book is one of inspiration at its finest and at all levels. Eulalie is lost because she cannot find what inspires her as a writer and an individual. All she has to turn to are the books and newspapers present in her home, and her choice to accept and deliver the package from this mysterious man is one born from those feelings of uncertainty. Beyond that however, Black Stars Above is an exemplary creative work that shows the heights a work can reach when creators pay respect to the work that inspired them. It is more than simply a tribute or homage to what came before — Nadler and Cha are not just aping their influences like Lovecraft, Poe, Ito, or Wrightson. They are paying their respects by using these great creators’ techniques and styles in conjunction with their own and each other to craft something entirely new. Black Stars Above may share qualities regarding styles or framing devices, but it has its own voice that stands out in the zeitgeist of today’s comics scene. While Black Stars Above carries an atmosphere reminiscent to Lovecraftian horror, it isn’t and will never be that. It is Nadlerian, and that is so much better, because no matter now many influences he drew from, “it is 100% Lonnie Nadler [and fellow creators].”
It is also 100 percent driven by Eulalie. She is an strong female character that provides the skeletal structure, nervous system, and bleeding heart for this book all at the same time. A young woman struggling to find herself against an environment pushing against her is something very relevant to many of us today. This is not an identity or experience that all of us will share, but it is one that all of us should learn about. When we see characters like Eulalie resisting and overcoming circumstances, it makes us think harder about the circumstances we create for others, and because we experience the issue through her eyes, ears, thoughts, and feelings, we feel at least a part of what she does.
Fate. It’s something that many of us don’t talk about often or believe anymore, but remains a core theme of this book. In many ways, you could argue that Eulalie’s destiny is predetermined; at least it was by her parents before she defied it. It feels very natural that her fate feels so molded by the actions of her family’s past, particularly her grandfather, and the idea that a past you weren’t a part of can define your future is the most terrifying and dreadful thing. There is so much we don’t know about destiny, and we are often driven by our desire to discover more. The unknown is terrifying but necessary for our survival. In some ways, the adrenaline caused by our collective fear of the unknown is what drives us forward. And much like a shark that must keep swimming to survive, if we were not pushed by our own uncertainties, perhaps we would perish. It is contradictory, confusing, uncomfortable, and frustrating, but likely a necessary part of life. We must live with what we do, so we might as well love it, and Eulalie is struggling to find balance and a way she can do that. Defying fate must be an incredibly rare feeling, and I cannot truly say whether or not I have shared that emotion until I defied my own fate, if such a thing is possible, however, experiencing it through Eulalie is transformative. Her voice and experiences come through so clearly that it becomes impossible not to feel them. This is due largely to Nadler’s words, but also Cha’s amazing line work and expressions, the wonders Simpson is able to do with a palette of largely browns, beiges, and tans, and Otsmane-Elhaou crafting balloons reminiscent of woodcarvings to fit the aesthetic of the book. “Genuine” does not even begin to describe the feeling here and it’s definitely thanks to this true collaborative effort. This is clearly a book crafted with a lot of careful discussion and visualization, and the effort shows.