What on earth is going on in Blacklung? Why do these characters have faces that look like they were all constructed from the castoff remains of the faces of pugilists, who were also prolific knife-fighters? What about their grotesque hairstyles? And their nasty, but poetic attitudes? Why is this ship full of madmen, preachers, and syphilitics? It’s all very hazy and evoking something that’s a step-sister of steampunk, or perhaps a drugged-out update on Edward Gorey. Plunder, torture, lechery, drunkenness, mutilation, and madness throng this shocking story to the point that it becomes almost routine.
The story takes a while to get started, with a lengthy introduction to the disparate (but equally strange) lives of the mad shipmates and the pompous school teacher they accidentally capture. Once captured, the high-minded teacher, Isaac, unwittingly finds an ally in a fierce, wise gangster shipmate and is later enlisted by the ship’s prosaic and ponderous captain (qualities which, of course, make him a terrible captain) to help him write his memoirs. It all tumbles from story to story, from violent act to strange turn of phrase, from vomiting incident to island invasion, and finally to a feverish, fantastic, artistically gymnastic 6-page story of the captain’s sordid sexual beginnings and their violent, futile ends. After the insistent droning on of a non-cohesive storyline, this climax is unexpected, welcome, and seems like a well-earned, albeit nightmarish, reverie.
The story seems purposefully vague and unpolished, meandering through the grotesque to no particular end; the real point of Blacklung’s existence is to let Chris Wright explore what he can do with his squirm-inducing, spooky cartooning style — each panel cross-hatched to infinity, with many blacked-out panels or even whole pages gone black for narrative effect, darkness setting in from all sides. The shakiness of his illustrations seems at once amateur and deliberate. In addition, the pacing trims none of the fat–the reader has to take it all in, experience the entire uncensored weirdness of Wright’s inner creative workings. It’s not for every reader, but it is artistically bold and ultimately effective. The book ends on a sort of exclamation, like “Oof, where have I been? Am I awake now or am I still dreaming?” note.
Other readers have compared Wright’s illustration style to Lews Trondheim’s bubbly, weirdo monsters, which I think is apt, but Blacklung also reminds me, viscerally, of the sex and drug dream psychosis of Charles Burns in Black Hole and X’ed Out. Blacklung is a promising start, but Wright would need to sharpen his storytelling skills to truly reach a broader audience than those who are already inclined to gravitate to his style of comics. It wouldn’t surprise me, however, if Wright had absolutely zero interest in doing so.