Since I became a comic reviewer I’ve rarely had time to sit down and finish a graphic novel. I look at the page count and think about how much else I need to get done and it instantly goes to the back burner. It’s something I’m trying to fix since I’m sitting on way too many trades to review. I took a random chance on Black Fire from Archaia Entertainment, I wasn’t really given any advanced notice about the book other than the synopsis and the fact that it was created, written and drawn by one man: Hernan Rodriguez. The book is set during the Napoleonic wars and opens on an intense action sequence. A soldier is running, but from whom or what it is unknown as the page slowly zooms in on the fleeing man. Instantly we get the sense of danger and intensity from the first page of the story. The next page shows the same man getting his head taken off by someone else on horseback, only to be shot off the horse by another French soldier. A foot battle breaks out as the man is still alive and it ends up taking the help of two more French soldiers to kill the unmounted man. After taking a moment to rest, one of the men listens to the ground and can hear the gallops of more horses coming straight for them. Tired and bloody, they begin running for the forest clearing at the bottom of the hill they’re on. One of the men takes a bullet through the shoulder, but they all manage to make it to the tree line where their pursuers stop short of.
They make camp of the night, not worrying for the moment why the Cossack’s didn’t kill them when they had the chance. During the night one of the men, Ducasse, has an intense dream about a creature feasting on the corpses of dead soldiers. He yells out at the beast to stop, but it doesn’t listen. He’s joined in his dream by the soldier that was shot. He’s now a ghostly white apparition with a head that is on fire and tells his friends that he’s dead, but also that he’s better off than him since he’s fucked. The next morning the two living men Ducasse and Serpierre cover the dead man in snow and begin looking for protection from the cold.
They come across a town that looks run down and deserted. They begin exploring until they come across a well in front of a church. Feeling a sense of relief they run to the well until someone calls out to them to put their guns down. They duck for cover as they call out that their Napoleon’s men. After a short exchange their brought into the church and introduced to a random batch of survivors all huddled around a fire. There’s people from all walks of life in the group: thieves, other French soldiers, a Portuguese soldier, an ex-prostitute turned army cook and a man so sickly that he’s locked in another room. He’s a sickly sight and the key to all the trouble that is about to begin for the camp of refugees.
At first the story seems like a period war story, but soon after the sickly man dies it turns into horror/thriller story in which an ancient evil begins killing the group off one by one. After each murder it uses the soul of the previous victim to trick another victim into falling into its trap. Soon the group is at each other’s throats and yet forced to rely on each other in order to survive and figure out what they’re up against.
The concept of the story can really be summoned up as such: John Carpenter’s The Thing mixed with Event Horizon set in the Napoleon War. I know reading that you’re going to think that I’m full of shit, but really that’s what it is and it works. There are several slow parts, mostly the pages in which we're forced to hear everyone’s sob story of how they got there. It’s not terribly interesting and it usually comes right before they die in order to give you some sense of loss when it happens. It’s successfully executed with a few of the characters, but otherwise falls short. The rest of the time you’re reading intense action sequences like I described at the opening of the book or horrific scenes that will truly creep you out. One scene in particular shows the evil entity tricking another man into eating his dead friend that he’s masking himself as. It’s disgusting and yet adds to the intensity of the story.
Creator Hernan Rodriguez crafts a great story full of intrigue and violence that should capture the attention of any comic fan. His story is very different from most horror stories. His characters are mostly unlikeable and yet you root for them due to the terrible circumstance they find themselves in. I also enjoyed the way he didn’t pull punches with the characters. Due to the cold environment they find themselves in, most of them are victims of frostbite and have lost fingers and toes. Yet they persevere and it makes them stronger characters for the most part.
What Rodriguez does right with his horror/thriller story is that his characters act realistically in the situation that they’re in. They don’t instantly become heroes and take on this great evil, they want to get the hell out of the town and never look back again. Also the world surrounding them is also very real, even if there is a supernatural aspect to their struggles. The frostbite, the food shortage, they are constantly forced to deal with real events that affect them as much as the evil trying to kill them. In particular I enjoyed the fact that they were all weak from being cold and hungry and didn’t look like supermodels. One character’s eye is constantly red from exposure to the cold and trauma and these little details make the horror all the more real when it happens.
More than the story I enjoyed Rodriguez’s art style. It felt Japanese inspired with the uncombed hair and yet maintained a European style for the most part. I can tell that this comic was not created with the American standard for comic books. It breaks panels with dialog and has several movie inspired scenes that give the book a feel of actually moving. The only place that the art struggles is in the character designs. Granted most of the characters are French soldiers wearing similar uniforms based on their rank, but a few of them look almost exactly alike. At one point I thought one of the main characters were killed until I re-read the page and corrected myself. Even still just turning the page of the book my eye’s told me it was one of the main characters. In general though the art style is very good and hopefully we see a lot more of Rodriguez’s style and fantastic coloring abilities.
You may think to yourself that this book sounds weird and creepy and frankly it is. I don’t think I could compare this book to any other comic I’ve ever read. I could easily find other artists to compare the style too, but not the story. It’s very strange and yet interesting. Additionally, I wouldn’t be surprised if Hollywood tries to make this into a movie since the formatting is basically done for them already. The bottom line is that I enjoyed it a lot; I went in knowing nothing and expecting the same. I ended up with a great original graphic novel that excited me to read more.
Writer/Artist: Hernan Rodriguez Letterer: Troy Peteri Script Translation: Anna Rosen Guercio Publisher: Archaia Entertainment Price: $24.95 Release Date: 12/28/11