My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Warren Ellis has never written a bad book. The man seems to be incapable of doing so. Blackgas keeps his record of not writing bad books intact. Unfortunately, this is not a great book. It is barely a good book. But it is most definitely not a bad book.
Blackgas is at its core a classic late 70’s early 80’s horror story. It starts out with two young college kids heading into the woods to do a bit of fooling around. And like in all classic tales of horror, that act of carnality costs them dearly. Their conjugal bed is still steaming when the fault line underneath the tiny island they are on cracks open spilling out the Blackgas the book is named for. This gas has strange chemical properties that cause all that breathe it in to turn into a sort of zombie hellbent on eating flesh and (at least in the early stages of infection) acting out on all of their darkest desires. Lucky for our two lovebirds the wind was blowing south. With a shotgun and a baseball bat, the two attempt to make it to the docks, onto a boat, and from there to safety. That proves to be much more difficult than anticipated.
Ellis generally does good with his characterizations. He builds characters with deep thoughts and emotions. Characters that have complex thoughts about the situations they are in. In Blackgas, the characters are flat. We are given so little time with anyone and interesting characters are trotted out on stage where we are told (and not shown) what to think about them before they disappear. Often between the teeth of a horde of ravenous zombies. It’s a shame that this book (which was originally released in two series of three comics) wasn’t given a little more length. I don’t need this story to span a gargantuan amount of time building the story, but a little bit more leisure in the first act would have been nice. I know it’s tough to sell two issues of a horror comic that have nothing horrific happening in them, but some exposition would be helpful to the pacing of the story.
And pacing is a problem with this book. Especially the second half. The end is rushed way too fast, only to end up in a fairly clichéd ending. Characters are introduced and executed in the space of two panels. A zombie story should be fast paced and get your heart pounding, but there is no feeling of a story being told. It is like a series of cut scenes in a video game. We run/drive/strafe until we pause for a second to let something horrific happen, then do it all again. There isn’t enough time to feel anything for any of the characters. Ellis does more with fewer pages in Fell.
I wasn’t completely disappointed. Their are some truly inventive things in this book. Warren Ellis has added a great depth and dimension to the zombies in this story by allowing them to talk and have emotions (again, at least in the early stages of infection). The blackgas infection strips away all of our social and civilizing filters and forces the victims into acting out their darkest thoughts. Some zombies seem to revel in the freedom while others suffer mentally, often crying and apologizing to their victims. These scenes are quite profound. So much so that the zombies are the only characters that I felt anything for in this book.
The artwork is also quite well done, but not a complete knockout. Max Fiumara doesn’t do the whole hazey-phazey hallucinatory murk that Ben Templesmith does. The artwork is much more akin to the realistic work of artists like Alex Maleev or Joe Quesada. The backgrounds are quite detailed, often loaded with little bits of detail and jokes that add a very complete feel to the scene. Fiumara also does some of the best looking drawings of heads getting blown off, intestines getting munched on, arms getting severed, penises getting fried on a griddle, etc. etc. etc. that I have ever seen. There is clearly love given to the horrific aspects of this story. The same care was unfortunately not given to the central characters. They seem rushed and at times incomplete.
Again, the central problem with Blackgas is that more care and love is given to the horrific (in all senses of that word) aspects of the book than on the supposed protagonists. One could ostensibly make the argument that the zombies are the protagonists, if the last act of the book didn’t wash over them so damned quickly.
Blackgas was a fun romp, but ultimately a romp that leaves the reader feeling underwhelmed. It reads as a slightly ham fisted attempt at writing transgressive literature. The problem with writing transgressive literature is that it has all been done before. Georges Bataille’s Story Of The Eye from 1928 has more shocks to the sensibilities than this. What Ellis can offer is the image instead of just the word. It’s just such a shame that they rushed through the images. If the story and its ideas were given the proper amount of time to develop, something rather interesting could’ve resulted. Ultimately Blackgas just seems like a wasted opportunity from one of the masters of the medium.