Thursday, 14 July 2011

Books: Blackgas


Written by Warren Ellis
Art by Max Fiumara


Available now from Islington Libraries
You can reserve this item for free here:

So first off let's just get it out of the way and all just admit that "Blackgas" sounds like the sort of name that you'd give to a particular noxious strain of fart. Ok? Yes? Fine? Good (and don't pretend I was the only one thinking it).

As you should be able to tell from the front cover of the people surrounded by grey-skinned ghouls (and the girl with the bloody baseball bat) Blackgas is Warren Ellis having a little zombie adventure. And - well - doing pretty much exactly all the things that you would expect: I mean - the zombie killing baseball bat is such a trusty genre staple that Shaun of the Dead could subvert it with a cricket bat all the way back in 2004 [1] and the action inside never really manages to reach the gonzo heights of his better and more well-known books [2] (and - well yeah: maybe this is just my ignorance talking but I had no idea that this book existed until I saw it listed on the "Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought" bit on amazon and I was all like: Warren Ellis wrote a zombie book?! Why did I not know about this? Of course now I know that the reason I hadn't heard about it is because - well: it's all just a bit slight).

Ok yeah: to give it some credit: It does manage to implement a few small tweaks and updates to the old zombie archetype here and there (well ok - so maybe tweaks and updates undersells it slightly: but whatever) - and there's some nifty dialogue scattered about the place (the first few pages in particular are a mini-masterclass in how to handle exposition: I mean I realise that some people might find it a little cheesy - but in terms of laying out just who your characters are in a few short lines ("A total bitch who thinks Nature is something that comes as a side dish?") I'd say it's actually all quite nicely done)  - but - sorry Warren - reading it after Crossed [3] and The Walking Dead (not to mention having seen pretty much every major zombie movie out there [6]) it kinda a little bit safe - a little bit I'm sorry but I've kinda seen-this-all-before. The artwork is functional but doesn't really convey in the horror in any way that would actually scare you or leave you scared to sleep [7]: seeing someone having their face ripped apart by teeth should leave me feeling - well - something you know? Here it just feels like getting a blank monotone description ("And then the man got his face chewed by the zombie people") but then I guess that's the artist's bad rather than the writers (and man: I wonder what effect Blackgas would have in the hands of an artist who had the proper artistic chops to do it justice? Like Chris Weston say or even - dare I say it? - Crossed's Jacen Burrows [8]: someone who made it feel like you were watching humans rather than just lines on a page: but oh well - that's not how it turned out). I mean - I won't lie: there are some small residual effects that creep up on you (and it's canny in how it handles it's escalation and the way it unfurls from one stage to the next): but it's like the creepy horror film that keeps you gripped while it's on and then dissipates as soon as it ends: yeah?

It does have a few cool moves that you might not have seen before (and is that what I think it is in Tyler's father's mouth?) - but compared to the idea of Warren Ellis doing zombies it just has a taste of the cookie-cutter instead of - you know: the actual cookie (yum: cookies) [9].

Yeah: sure - maybe my hopes were a little too high... but hell: unless you're going to wow me then I guess I'd rather just stay at home and - sadly Blacksad mostly feels more like a movie pitch more than it feels like it's own beautiful thing (and I guess I wanted a beautiful thing: more fool me).

[1] 2004? Damnit - for some reason I thought Shaun of the Dead was older than that - oh well.

[2] To just pick an example from the top of my head: try reading this next to Supergod: and it doesn't even feel like it's from the same author. Or rather - (to be a little bit more precise): it's the difference between someone going for a walk and someone driving a car (if that makes sense?): you know - speed, power, actually getting somewhere etc.

[3] Interestingly (well - interesting to me at least): the first issue of Crossed didn't come out until August 2008 while Blackgas came out in 2006 and 2007: and yet (and maybe this is just the order I read them in or whatever): Blackgas kinda feels like it's the cheap copy - which is totally unfair (I know): like saying that The Beatles sound like a pale imitation of Oasis (or whatever other blah and blah you wanna use): but there you go [4].

[4] Although - actually - thinking about it just a little more: that Beatles/Oasis distinction doesn't feel quite right (as most of the world can surely agree that the Beatles managed a lot more than just writing uplifting beery-singalongs). A better - more accurate - analogy would be The New York Dolls and The Sex Pistols / The Thing From Another World and The Thing / Penny-farthing and bicycles (things where we can all pretty much agree that the second thing is better than the first) or something: where the one that came first (Blackgas) is the one that kinda paved the way for the next one [5] but isn't as fully realized while the second (Crossed) builds upon what's gone before and makes it all bigger and better and more exciting... The little brother that does it better.

[5] And yeah - of course this all relies upon the idea that Blackgas actually did influence Crossed in some way: but I'm guessing that Ellis and Ennis must travel in the same circles right? (Even if it's just the same-first-letter-and-last-two-letters-of-their-surname club). According to this tho Ennis got his idea for Crossed from a nightmare: "The dream I had involved me staying at a friend's place, which was surrounded by what appeared to be zombies. On closer examination, we realised they weren't, they were just people... who were smiling at us with the most evil intent. It was one of those dreams where one minute you're part of the action, the next you're watching it from afar, like on a movie screen. I woke up before anything unpleasant happened." But whatever.

[6] If you think that's an exaggeration then I suggest you check out the post I wrote on The Walking Dead and then get back to me...

[7] And ok yeah - I should stop going on about Crossed (I know): but I gave it to my flatmate to read over a year ago and he's still having nightmares.

[8] Who does get an "additional art" credit - but I think that's just because he did a few of the covers.

[9] Of course then I read the Comic Book Resources interview with Warren Ellis (link below) and well: then it all made sense: "Ellis said that "Blackgas" got its start from a request by Avatar's Editor-In-Chief William Christiansen. "William has a thing about zombies," said Ellis. "He's been after me for years to write him a zombie book. A ways back, I broke down and devised 'Blackgas,' specifically for him. It's basically me writing a book for my friend to read. Because my friend is sick in the head, it has disgusting violence and gutbusting horror in it. That's the whole deal, really. Sometimes it's just as simple as that."" - and - well - that explains that then.

Links: Fatally Yours Review, PopMatters Review, The Hot-Doll Pages Review, Comic Book Resources Interview with Warren Ellis.

Further reading: Crossed, The Walking DeadZomnibusAlan Moore's The CourtyardSupergod, Stephen King's N, Irredeemable, Cradlegrave, The StandTransmetropolitan.

All comments welcome.

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