Black Stars Above #1
Written by Lonnie Nadler
Art by Jenna Cha and Brad Simpson
Lettering by Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou
Published by Vault Comics
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10
Eerie cosmic horror and harsh historical drama collide in the dreamy, well-constructed debut of Black Stars Above. Spearheaded by a creative team that feels deeply in sync, Black Stars Above transports readers back to 1887, where the fur trade is dying, and a young woman pines for an existence beyond her simple, sheltered life. But she gets far more than she bargained for when she accepts a courier job from an odd stranger in town, plunging her into a world filled with cosmic horror beyond her comprehension.
Evocatively written by Lonnie Nadler, Black Stars Above delivers all the purple prose and dread of a cosmically terrifying tale, but with far more heart than the old pulp magazines could ever hope for. Thanks to Nadler’s attention to character and historical worldbuilding, this opening strives to be something more than just scary. Thankfully artists Jenna Cha and Brad Simpson also share the same goal, making the harsh wilderness and cramped interiors look menacing but lived-in. This gives it a leg up on more obviously ghoulish horror fare, standing it as the indie equivalent to more obviously rendered genre entries. If you like your horror with a bit more character and mood and less bloodletting, look toward the Black Stars Above.
While you might not instantly associate 18th century fur trading with horror, Nadler disabuses you of that notion immediately. Rendered by the deliberate letters of Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou, Nadler lays out the brutality of series lead Eulaie DuBois’ life, the isolation of it and the bubbling tensions between her French father and grandfather and her native Michif mother. Isolation and alienation is a main theme of most cosmic horror, so it is nice to see Nadler deliver as such, but with such a diverse, specific viewpoint is a treat.
But while Black Stars Above has a heart, the creative team reveal that it is blacker than black, thanks to the cosmic horror elements foisted upon our young lead. They start to bait the hook early, thanks to an unsettling opening where another tracker traps a lynx with no eyes - instead, its sockets are filled with a sort of inky black ooze. And then after some sizable fleshing out of the DuBois family, they throw young Eulaie into “the Green Ribbon,” a passed-down name for the immense thicket of trees that supports their trapping lines. From the cramped interiors, artist Jenna Cha and colorist Brad Simpson adapt well to the oppressive and snow-covered forest, dominating the frame with thick icy trunks and implacable background that always seem to be closing in on our leading lady.
The use of negative space to imply madness isn’t a new visual trick in comics, but the way Cha and Simpson make the darkness around Eulaie seem alive somehow is a skin-crawling delight. As she gets further into the Ribbon, Eulaie tries to make camp, attempting to separate “the world inside the tent and the world outside” (just one of Nadler’s more effective turns of phrase). The art team nail this idea, sketching Eulaie in a short of rough-hewn shroud of blackness as she huddles in her tent. But outside is a different sort of animal, lit by the titular Black Stars, filtering down dark light onto the treetops threatening to engulf the whole woods. It is very striking stuff, and proof positive that Nadler, Cha, Simpson and Otsmane-Elhaou can deliver engaging horror visuals while also making it feel expressive and real.
Allowing a fine humanity into the usually cold, detached genre of cosmic horror, Black Stars Above #1 is a sterling example of elevated horror in comics. It both delves into the weird, but it’s not afraid to make its characters real people rather than doomed mouthpieces to be dashed into insanity. It doesn’t handwave away the racial politics of the era, nor does it engage in blatant racism like genre’s most prolific contributor. Instead it makes the racial strife at the center of this family text, tempering the insolation and tension of the cosmic horror with timely social horror. Armed with brains, heart, and a dark soul, Black Stars Above #1 is a nightmare well worth having.