BOOK REVIEWS/REPLIES: C. Wright’s (2012) Black Lung

24 December 2014

Summary (TLDR Version)

In a well-managed world, we’d need no heroics.

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve read this section previously, you can skip it. It describes the aspiration of these “replies”.

Two years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day; last year, I did so. Continuing from then, I now have the task to read fifteen pages per day,[1] and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction (or reply) for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop). I plan also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests.

These replies will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to do so when I read it. Rather, these replies amount to assessments of the ways I found the book helpful somehow. More precisely—and this describes what I mean by a reply, as opposed to a reaction (review) or a response—I try to focus in these pieces on what I could not have said (or would not have known what to say) except that the intersection of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I will sometimes say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff, &c. Some in the world expect everyone to possess omniscience and won’t bother to engage in a human dialogue toward divining how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reply I offer provides an I found this helpful in this book, then it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or do something else we see as potentially helpful as part of attempting to make our world a better place. If you won’t bother to take up your end of that bargain, that signals of course part of the problem that needs a solution.

This means you might disagree with me, especially where I have it wrong.

A Reply To: C. Wright’s (2012)[2] Black Lung

I often feel like I should at least give some general summary of what people claim for the books (in this case, the graphic novel) I reply to; so then, this:

Chris Wright’s Black Lung is unquestionably one of the most impressive graphic novel debuts in recent years, a sweeping, magisterially conceived, visually startling tale of violence, amorality, fortitude, and redemption, one part Melville, one part Peckinpah. Blacklung is a story that lives up to the term graphic novel, that could only exist in sequential pictures — densely textured, highly stylized, delicately and boldly rendered drawings that is, taken together, wholly original. In a night of piratical treachery when an arrogant school teacher is accidentally shanghaied aboard the frigate Hand, his fate becomes inextricably fettered to that of a sardonic gangster. Dependent on one another for survival in their strange and dangerous new home, the two form an unlikely alliance as they alternately elude or confront the thieves and cutthroats that bad luck has made their companions and captors. After an act of terrible violence, the teacher is brought before the ship’s captain and instructed to use his literary skills to aid him in writing his memoirs. He is to serve as scribe for a man who, in his remaining years, has made it his mission to commit as many acts of evil as possible in order to ensure that he meet his dead wife in hell. As the captain’s protected confidant, finding his only comfort in the few books afforded him, the teacher bears witness to monstrous brutality, relentless cruelty, strange wisdom, and a journey of redemption through loss of faith. Yes

One reviewer at Amazon noted the resemblance of Black Lung to Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, a comparison that seems not only apt and obvious, but confirmed also by Wright who cites McCarthy as an inspiration.[3] The biggest difference, of course, being that nothing like redemption happens in McCarthy’s book, while Wright describes himself as a die-hard Romantic, in love with big ideas.[4]

Wright thus finds himself in something of a pickle. If Melville represents an arch-romantic,[5] epic in scope, then McCarthy (at least in Blood Meridian) represents an arch-antiromantic, though equally epic in scope. And this tension, or contradiction, lurks in Wright’s book. Most obviously, the character of Sweaney,[6] who starts off more or less simply a torturer and sadist but seems to wind up portrayed as a sexual sadist, resembles (even physical, I suspect) the Judge from McCarthy’s book. In contrast, the captain of the ship in Wright’s book seems to owe a debt more to Melville.

I’ll stop for a moment. Why does any of this matter? What difference if the book seems partly inspired by Melville or McCarthy? Why bother sorting it out at all? And why centre any of this on Sweaney or the Captain anyway?

The book’s narrative has two basic parts: a depiction of the (criminal) world on land, with all of its (criminal) brutality, and then the narrative on the ship, which de-rationalises the violence by making it seem gratuitous, especially when Sweaney does it. As a result, if the first part seems like a typical depiction of the “underworld,” with all of its various brutal, but economically familiar reasons for (criminal) violence, once we get out to sea, the books starts much more to resemble the kind of world depicted in McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, i.e., a world where the most awful violence, beautifully depicted, occurs at the drop of a hat, for no reason. Thus, on the ship, the arrogant school teacher gets three fingers cut off by Sweaney, just for the sake of gratuitous cruelty.

Not insignificantly, this wound—which then requires cutting off the rest of the teacher’s hand to save him—serves as a plot point for Wright; because the teacher knows how to write (pun not intended), the Captain enlists him to write his memoirs. Wright thus “makes sense” of Sweaney’s violence by integrating it into the plot; McCarthy would not have done (and did not do) this in Blood Meridian. Whatever mechanical, mindless horror of the world McCarthy takes pains to present, the notion that something meaningful comes from it gets continuously undermined.

Readers often rail against this: for all of the gorgeous prose McCarthy obviously crafts, the book amounts finally to something less even than sound and fury signifying nothing. To the extent that McCarthy took inspiration from or based his book upon a memoir, he may have felt constrained or inhibited from “adding a moral”. Wright, by contrast, goes considerably out of his way to add a moral, so to speak. Partly, he signals this by literally twisting and interlocking frames as the Captain spools out the (difficult to follow) narrative of his past. Not only the back of the book (its ad-text) but also the Captain himself makes clear that his actions serve the end of love: to commit enough evil to assure his consignment to Hell once he dies, in order to reunite with his wife.

But even if this part of the narrative steps in to try to upstage the McCarthyist nihilism on the ship, this whole motivation and impulse remains challenged by the “merely criminal” depiction in the opening of the book. Should we read the “criminal” thugs as less noble for having merely economic interests in committing evil? Or, unfortunately, do they simply reflect that bourgeois fantasy of the poor: that criminality comes “naturally” and inevitably?

Torture being difficult to witness, of course that kind of violence—presented statically and scratchily in drawn form—makes for a sort of gruesome torture for the reader as well. But the pyrotechnics of this overshadow a kind of hollowness that informs the climax Wright intends for his book. The language he resorts to at the outset—when showing us the criminal world—seems to borrow distinctly from British English, and very impressively. BY contrast, when Sweaney first sets his sights on the school teacher, the coarseness of his sexual insult seems vulgar in the sense of a mistake on Wright’s part and not just apropos of the character. In Blood Meridian, the notoriously ambiguous ending occurs out of sight in an outhouse, and McCarthy leaves it to the reader to wonder if the Judge not only killed but also raped the Kid (before or after killing him). The ambiguous presence of a sexual element has its own kind of vulgarity as well, but McCarthy at least doesn’t resort to sexual insults, which all of us—even if we hate ”faggots”—recognise as déclassé, tacky, and small-minded.

On the other hand, insofar as it seems forever easier to describe the problem than to describe the solution, the necessary path of least resistance that treks first through the “amorality” (or economic venality) of the criminal underworld and then shifts to the “mindless horror” of normalised cruelty for the sake of cruelty itself leaves Wright with the unenviable task of trying to “sell” the Captain’s (attempted) redemption—or the school teacher’s. Just as a superhero requires a worthy villain (otherwise she seems like neither a hero nor super at all), so that a great deal of a narrative expends itself to show precisely the villainy of the evil, in theory the further down one goes, the higher up the narrative might rise at the end.

Abel Ferrara supplies one extremely successful example of this in his Bad Lieutenant, where the sheer irrationality of his gesture of redemption helps to sell it after an unremitting parade (at times almost—intentionally—comic in the degree of its totality) of bad behaviour. So, the basic shape of what Wright attempts here has the right form, but it doesn’t succeed—at least not so nearly as it might—probably most of all because one might never really decide, “Who gets redeemed?”

The most obviously candidate, the school teacher, experiences nothing like the levels of perpetration committed by the Captain or Sweaney. He—like one of Conrad’s “heroes”—undergoes an ordeal, but this amounts to the standard arc of seemingly senseless suffering in a world of pain with, hopefully, some variety of less learned. If he begins the story as wholly emotionless, detached from and indifferent to the world of violence his students occupy, we never seem much or enough after the ordeal to know how the experience has changed him (for better or worse). Meanwhile, the Captain and Sweaney (even less) make for comparatively less and less convincing objects of “redemption”.

As such, the centremost candidate for “redemption” involves Wright’s text itself, i.e., that after the brutality of the criminal world and the horror of senseless violence, he unmoors the story (and even the frames of his text) to attempt to elevate it with the epic significance of the Captain’s damnation. Maybe it boils down to a question of success—on Wright’s part—even in the failure of the scope of his reach, but the impression lingers that he wants to “sell” a particularly ending, and it just doesn’t seem sufficiently motivated or grounded by the earlier parts of the book.

It seems that at some point, Wright simply turns a corner in the text and starts pushing or insisting on the ending he desires, despite an insufficiency of justification for it. If the school teacher’s “lesson” remains ambiguous, and the Captain’s “moral” involves (without paradox or irony) his desired damnation, perhaps the lack of any “redemption” for Sweaney most strongly undermines the desire of Wright’s book to “redeem itself”—or sell itself as embodying a redemption at the end.

I don’t mean that Sweaney could experience redemption—he seems well beyond the pale—but only that he should, if the book would make its case. Most obviously, Sweaney figures the character most in need of redemption (if we ignore some of the thugs at the start of the book, any of which might also “need” redemption).

No one gives a shit about the individual redemption of someone, not even of a figure like Christ, whose redemption (according to its myth) stands in for everyone. Wright certainly gives us too little to really care that the Captain, as an individual, gets his redemption-as-damnation or not. The Captain figures as a marginal character for the first part of the sea voyage, as a figure afraid of and overshadowed by Sweaney, who might at any moment run amok and kill everything in the world and on the boat. Moreover, visually clever Wright lays out the Captain’s biography on the page, he makes it chock full of brand new exposition we’ve not encountered before. It only has the value of revelation but not necessarily any harvest of emotional resonance—not even irony in light of things we’ve already previously seen or learned of the Captain. This especially makes the focus on him at the end feel so forced.

Again, individual redemption means either something shallow (when we don’t have the emotional experiences of resonances with earlier material, as happens here) or nothing, because it hinges merely anecdotally on one (fictional) person’s story. Rather, the reader cares (more implicitly) about the adventure of redemption as a theme in the book. We might buy this theme as attached to the school teacher, only because we have followed him throughout the book, but even then, not only must we see consequences of that redemption, the “life” of the theme needs showing in those characters most desperately in need of redemption, i.e., Sweaney and the thugs at the beginning. By doing nothing on this score—or not enough—this makes Wright’s text feel forced and artificial and less convincing, at the end, that otherwise.

Visually startling and definitely concerned with big ideas, the hollowness of the “victory” at the end unintentionally undermines Wright’s intention to tell a story of redemption. Aiming at a “visually startling tale of violence, amorality, fortitude, and redemption,” it leaves us finally with only the violence, amorality, and perhaps the school teacher’s and the reader’s fortitude in enduring that violence and amorality. It makes it seem as if, as in McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, we have suffered senseless (but beautifully presented) cruelty to little discernible purpose beyond the emotional rush of aesthetic appreciation.

To the extent that this kind of aesthetic rush serves the culture industry’s aim to fill our leisure time with amusements so that we remain distracted not only from the tediousness of capital’s exactions and exploitation of our work but also its draining off of our life’s significance, then both Black Lung and Blood Meridian serve admirably as ironic object lessons.


[1] More precisely, I will continue to read my usual ten pages but I will also read five pages per day of Burton’s (1620) Anatomy of Melancholy, a gigantic book that at five pages per day I will finish reading near the end of December 2014. I have wanted to read this book for a while, but various features of it make getting through it a challenge. UPDATE: I’ve dropped this project for reasons given here.

[2] Wright, C. (2012). Black lung, Seattle, WA: Fantagraphics, pp. 1–128.

[3] I feel like I ought to say something substantial about the general effectiveness of the visuals in Wright’s book, but besides seeming obvious, I also consider adeptness at providing apt visuals a criterion for a graphic novel too basic to compliment. We expect in written novels a basic facility for writing sentences; not to meet that minimum bar would represent a failure so basic as to deny the category “novel” to a book. Same here: to find artfulness in the visuals of a graphic novel means only that the author has met the most basic criterion of a graphic novel. Happily, Wright’s visuals have style and substance as well—something one cannot say, in fact, for many graphic novels., amazingly enough.

[4] For the sake of aim for accuracy, the quoted summary points, by invoking Melville and Peckinpah, to “romance” and “gory violence” respectively. And if the “romance” part aligns with Wright’s intellectual and artistic predilections, whatever inspiration he takes from McCarthy—at least McCarty’s Blood Meridian—can have nothing of “romance” about it. And, in fact, Wright’s book seems more in the direction of nihilistic or pointless violence—cruelty for the sake of cruelty—than the sort of romance he expresses a desire for in interviews.

[5] One may debate this assertion.

[6] With a name like Sweaney, thoughts of Sweeney Todd come quickly after. Wright may not intend the echo, or maybe he respelled Sweeney’s name to point away from the echo. Of course, whatever homicidal mania Sweeney Todd resorts to, as the demon-barber of Fleet Street, his violence has a far more “sociological” origin, particularly compared to the Judge in Sondheim’s musical, who has a specifically aberrant sexuality. One doesn’t have to sort out explicitly if Sweeney Todd, Sweeney Todd’s Judge, and McCarthy’s Judge fold together into Wright’s Sweaney—the intersection of sexuality and violence has lots of examples without needing to claim some specific pedigree.

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