Black Stars Above
The very first page of Black Stars Above is a large, white box with small, cursive narrative text; so let’s start with the lettering by Hassan Ostmane-Elhaou. This comic is not only a slow-burn horror story by way of historical fiction, but it is also strongly dependent on characters’ journal entries providing the narration. Other textual effects include more standard lettering on spoken dialog, which uses carats to mark whether characters are speaking Michif or French, and white-on-black lettering inside of jagged speech bubbles for noises made by an alien creature. At the midway point of the story, the comic transitions into eight full pages of journal entries, with a couple of sketches included. Ostmane-Elhaou’s use of small, cursive font for journal entries will force readers to slow down as they scan through pages, and the effect this has on purely visual pages cannot be understated.
The second page of Black Stars Above is a wordless, four-panel sequence of some lynx traveling across snowy land; so let’s talk about more of the visual elements of this book. At the brightest of times, the Canadian wilderness is depicted as a gray wilderness with snow storms either taking over the horizon or directly flurrying the panels. A good deal of the comic takes place during dusk or nighttime, with lanterns and moonlight acting as dramatic light sources for the protagonist. Brad Simpson’s coloring is able to find a suitable range of hues for each situation, whether it’s the warm fireplace colors of a cabin, the cold blues and silvers of the snowy dark, or touches and waves of red as the story becomes more disturbing and violent. As mentioned before, the wordless segments of the story feel carefully paced to complement the dense use of text, making this a difficult comic to skim or skip through unless readers want to cheat themselves by “fast forwarding” to the horror reveals. Jenna Cha’s artwork and thoughtful paneling, which considers characters’ movements throughout each scene, deserves full consideration from beginning to end. Her talents include rendering a silhouette in a snowstorm, use of upside-down perspectives to visually suggest transitions that physically occur later, and eldritch creatures given a wintry spin that makes them simultaneously off-putting and kind of cute.
The third and fourth pages see the narrator and lynx meet; so let’s describe the actual story here. Lonnie Nadler’s script can be broken into three acts, each centering on Eulalie Dubois, a young woman on the Canadian frontier who yearns to escape her rural existence. In the first act, she struggles against the constricting expectations of her parents, including her First Nations mother and French father, who plan to marry her off to a nearby suitor. In the second act, Eulalie attempts to deliver a mysterious package on her own, with the hope of earning enough money to buy her independence. In the third act, the senses are assaulted as Eulalie travels to the eponymous black stars and discovers all kinds of freakiness and rituals. Images of cosmic horror that are briefly displayed or hinted at in the first couple of chapters receive thorough payoff in the latter half of the book, like a prestige horror film that plays with themes and setting but doesn’t forget to deliver the bloody goods. Far from schlock or grindhouse thrills, the journey of Black Stars Above could be described in Eulalie’s words as, “delirium walking hand in hand with awe.” People aren’t getting graphically murdered, or at all, but the book’s surreal imagery around madness, alien creatures, and disruption to the natural order is highly suggestive.
Where content warnings are concerned teens and older who know the word “cthulu” will be uniquely excited to follow this book’s immersive bread crumbs into madness. Animals are skinned and gutted, including the sight of an animal fetus dead in the womb. Creatures’ eyes drip black goo, and there is a brief scene of a topless woman. The literary tone that permeates the text, along with the less than accessible cursive font, means a good amount of focus will be required, but will also lead toward immense satisfaction and hope for a sequel in the same vein.
Black Stars Above
By Lonnie Nadler
Art by Jenna Cha
Vault Comics, 2020
Publisher Age Rating: 12+
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NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18), Adult (18+)
Character Traits: First Nations or Indigenous Characters Multiracial,
Creator Highlights: BIPOC Creator