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Black Stars Above #3 Review

Providence.

The world of comics is often focused on the now.  With dozens of new issues out every week and our political and social climate in a period of constant fluctuation and change, it’s easy to see why so many comics choose to focus on capturing the essence of the present.  It’s new, fascinating, and relevant.  Very few are cautious and brave enough to look back to an earlier era of literature, philosophy, commentary, or storytelling.  With Black Stars Above, however, Lonnie Nadler, Jenna Cha, Brad Simpson, and Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou thrust readers back to the zeitgeist of the late 19th century, where the entire world stands on the precipice of the unknown, too scared to leave the comfortable but decaying traditions they were used to for the dramatic evolution and rapid advances left on their doorstep.  That is the feeling that Nadler and Cha present to you, but it’s up to you to decide its relevance.

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In doing this, Nadler and Cha not only ask, but demand to be included when discussing the evolution of Lovecraftian storytelling, especially with Black Stars Above #3. Therefore, when discussing this issue and those beyond it is important to clarify what Lovescraftian storytelling is.  For the purposes of Black Stars Above, common elements of Lovecraftian horror are a fear and awe of the unknown or that which we can’t comprehend, an acknowledgement of our insignificance in the vast expanse of the universe, and the natural decay of reality.  All three are significant within the context of Black Stars Above, but the issue differs from its Lovecraftian roots in one key manner: Character.  Lovecraft and Poe tend to reveal very little about their characters other than their current mental state as a part of emphasizing humanity’s larger insignificance.  Nadler and Cha make Black Stars Above incredibly intimate and character focused. Eulalie is, in many ways, the heart and soul of the series, and her desire to escape the life that was planned for her is what gives the story its forward momentum that propels us further into the unsettling and unknown elements.

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It’s extraordinarily difficult to depict something incomprehensible to the human psyche.  If you master a concept enough to draw it on the page, then one might presume it’s naturally able to be understood, thus diminishing its Lovecraftian nature, but Nadler and Cha are able to revolve their Lovecraftian elements around the imagery of the nebulous inkblot without explaining the various connection and interpretations they use, keeping things vague enough to always leave us unsure.  Their small beast or monster does not look like anything.  The events that occur and the inkblot-like images that appear do so without explanation, and it creates a deeply unsettling feeling.  When characters in Black Stars Above #3 are faced with this creature, they recoil in terror and shock.  They cannot comprehend what’s in front of them, which makes it even harder for us to do the same, as we have nothing to compare it to and no reactions to measure against.

But that unsettling feeling would not be enough to sustain the story on its own.  Lovecraft and Poe tended to focus on the mythos, monsters, and mysteries, but if Black Stars Above was centered around the package Eulalie is carrying, it would feel… aimless.  The story would heavily feature wondering through the snowy wilderness with no ulterior goal in mind.  Eulalie’s centering presence provides hope and escape.  It provides the direction that we wander in and allows Nadler and Cha to stray from that direction. Eulalie is able to wander into the terrifying and lonely cabin because she has an alternative destination and hasn’t resigned herself to death yet.  We as readers have hope that this cabin will provide some answers.  When those she encounters turn out to be demanding and hostile, we learn some contrarian philosophies to the importance and value of the unknown.

This leads to a discussion about the idea of providence.  The hunter inside the cabin attributes the ever-evolving state of the world to divinity, and claims that the divine will take us on different journeys but that they will all end in the same destination: freedom.  Individuals are all taking different paths through the heavy, blinding white snow toward the same place. This concept isn’t just displayed in the narration but in Cha and Simpson’s art as well.  Cha’s art, layout, and structure naturally lead readers toward this cabin filled with hunters and trappers that have lost their way and have gravitated towards this bleak oasis in a snowy wasteland.

The hunter says this was inevitable, but after spending a brief time revolving layouts and events around the cabin and introducing the idea of providence, Cha promptly shatters the notion that it leads to freedom.  She does this quite literally through imagery of shattered cups and windows.  The shards that form perfectly convey Eulalie’s descent into madness, and once she leaves the cabin, it is Simpson who eloquently resumes the discussion of providence through the his use of red.  The bright red tree and the journal beneath it serve as guiding symbols in the snowy white haze, but as Eulalie gets closer and reads the journal, we learn that this providence doesn’t lead towards freedom, but insanity. To follow this supposed divine path would lead to the same fate of madness and demise that Arthur Tanner met only months earlier.  And so providence is not necessarily something that leads us towards freedom, but rather a force that guides us back into chains.

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So here we are, faced with a broad genre with an unconventional and focused center.  Now we need a narrative framework through which to read.  This is largely where Poe’s works come in, as his more personal and epistolary style provide the perfect vehicle.  Reading through the more intimate state of one person’s thoughts is such a warm and raw feeling.  It’s a beautiful state of vulnerability in the middle of cold, snowy emptiness.  Even as we struggle to avoid our own madness and loss of certainty ourselves, we can’t help but cling to the warmth of the meanderings of another. That’s exactly what Eulalie finds in the words of Arthur Tanner.

To say it’s a bold move to include eight pages of pure, epistolary journal entries in the middle of a comic would be an understatement, but I’d argue that it’s necessary.  Eulalie is clearly in a place where she’s struggling to push forward, not only physically, but mentally.  As she approaches the journal, you see her thoughts fill with more and more doubts, and she crosses out and rewrites her own entries more and more.  She becomes increasingly negative but catches herself and crosses out her bleaker thoughts.  She also begins to write in the past tense, talking about feeling and sensations as though she no longer experiences them.  Then she reads the entries form Arthur Tanner.  She is reading his journey as we read hers with one key difference.  We are reading Eulalie’s journey with images laid out for us.  We see how her feelings affect her actions and are able to internalize her thoughts by watching Eulalie herself.  Tanner’s thoughts and feelings are only laid out in the raw written word.  To internalize them, Eulalie is forces to ponder and let them rattle around in her brain.  She must use her imagination and likely thinks about the parts of her journey she shares with Tanner and those that differ.

Ultimately, however, it comes back to providence and the notion of Amor fati.  Do we simply accept the plans that the divine have for us?  Do we love them equally, good or bad, as though they are inevitable, or do we shatter them and defy providence?  That is where the journeys of Arthur Tanner and Eulalie differ, and that is the quandary of Black Stars Above #3.

Is it good?
Ultimately, it comes back to providence and the notion of Amor fati.  Do we simply accept the plans that the divine have for us?  Do we love them equally, good or bad, as though they are inevitable, or do we shatter them and defy providence?  That is where the journeys of Arthur Tanner and Eulalie differ, and that is the quandary of Black Stars Above #3.
Nadler and Cha do a great job conveying a sense of vulnerability
A great use of the upside down as well as other neat and unique layout quirks
Lettering is essential to this book, and Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou does a great job including Eulalies thoughts, doubts and revisions through his lettering
Eight straight pages of journal entries may be a lot for some people
9
Great
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