There are some stories that need to be told by cartoonists. The ideas are so compelling, so wonderful, that the stories flow out of them, as though the story was writing itself. Chris Wright's Black Lung is not such a story. Instead, it feels more like a cancerous tumor that had to be excised from Wright's imagination in order to finally free him of it.Wright's grotesque character design that was so unsettling and fascinating in his Inkweed collection is still at play here, as his characters are huge, lumpy, bulbous men with sausage fingers and weird tufts that make up their hair. It's like they're a race of aliens or monsters in human clothing, with the stories set in a vaguely 19th century milieu. This is an era of sailing ships and piracy, but there's little romance in this story.Wright unleashes the full power of his dense artwork to create a relentlessly grim and oppressive story that is at times a pitch-black satire of both reason and faith.
There's a fairly wide cast of characters, but it essentially settles on three men: a vicious local thug named Mose, a dark-hearted pirate captain named Brahm and a refined but troubled teacher named Isaac. The first third of the book, though rough and tumble, is light-hearted when compared to the rest of the book. There are bar fights, kids run amok, cases of mistaken identity, schemes and various other forms of seedy shenanigans. Wright's ultra-dense use of hatching and cross-hatching creates an oppressive atmosphere, but it's one that nonetheless feels entirely alive. The bars, restaurants and streets feel like dirty, grim and real places. That powerful solidity of place is crucial when Isaac accidentally ends up in a bar full of men set to ambush Mose and have him conscripted to Brahm's crew. Isaac sticks out ridiculously in this setting, making his kidnapping by pirates almost a comedy of errors.
The humor of the book, such as it is, gets even darker once aboard the pirate ship. Mose quickly adapts to life as part of the crew and takes Isaac under his wing. The crew is full of murderous psychopaths, degenerates and the insane. Under Brahm's command, they ruthlessly pillage and plunder other ships. There's an almost relaxed, quotidian quality about the second third of the book, as Wright leisurely introduces us to the rest of the cast and the reader gets a sense of what daily life is like. Of course, daily life is horrible and dangerous, especially for someone as soft as Isaac, but that's part of the book's appeal. He is able to make himself useful by reading books to Brahm, and the two slowly develop an intellectual and philosophical rapport.
Brahm does what he does because the two women he loved and their unborn children were technically heathens, and thus in hell. Rationally, with the presupposition that god is real, Brahm reasons that if he lives as wicked and awful a life as possible, he is sure to rejoin his loved ones in hell. That logic is twisted but entirely sound, and Isaac reveals that he teaches poor children because he was kicked out of his last job for having an affair with a student, and then mistreated her afterwards. The final third involves Brahm leading his crew to a raid on a fort with a massive treasure and then disappearing. This part of the book is a real Heart of Darkness moment, one where morals, ethics and society utterly break down in savagery, with each man having to decide for himself what is good and evil. In the end, Isaac is left alone on an island, perhaps as punishment but more likely as a sort of reward from Brahm, an opportunity for his own redemption. Whether or not Brahm has found his own redemption through evil deeds is left up to the reader to decide, but it's remarkable what a well-rounded and even sympathetic character he becomes in Wright's hands. This is a book about a lot of mens' dark nights of the soul writ large (and bloody), and Wright offers no easy answers for any of them.