“Well, he robbed his way from Utah to Oklahoma and the law just could not seem to track him down”
I’ve been getting nifty digital copies of Black Jack Ketchum from writer Brian Schirmer, and as tomorrow the final issue gets released, I figured I’d review issues #3 and 4, because that’s just how I roll!
Black Jack Ketchum is an odd Western, full of “weird Western” tropes but also some other strange things, things I don’t really want to give away in this review, but that kind of puts a crimp in what I can actually write about. In the first two issues, we got indications that not all was as it seems – even beyond Schirmer using designation like the Judge and the Railroad Baron (capital letters very much implied and needed). Tom Ketchum’s quest to figure out if he’s actually notorious outlaw Black Jack Ketchum was the driving force of the first two issues, as it is in issue #3, as he comes to what he believes is the end of his search (obviously, as there’s one more issue to go, he’s not quite done, but he is in one crucial way). But Schirmer put enough in those first two issues to make us aware that all was not quite right in Tom Ketchum’s world, and in these two issues, he fully embraces the weirdness to make his ultimate point. Tom and the silent young girl who follows him around (not to mention his talking gun) were joined at the end of issue #2 by a Gambler, but Tom, it turns out, got his designation wrong, and the man becomes more important in issue #3, as he explains some things that might be a way of looking at what’s happening to Tom. In issue #4, Schirmer takes us on an unusual journey that is more about what we believe, using ideas that are common in our culture, in order to make his point.
It’s a very interesting way to make this more than just a Western story about a man searching for his identity. Schirmer cleverly takes a common “Western” idea – Stephen King, after all, famously began his own Western with a sentence almost summing up the plot of this comic – and upends it enough so that it remains what he began with, but also becomes more universal. The fascinating choice that Schirmer presents Tom Ketchum with is one in which he can decide on an identity and a fate, which is all any of us want, anyway.
Another thing that’s fairly interesting about the comic is something I always appreciate, and that’s the feeling that the writer isn’t trying to fool the reader. Schirmer, I imagine, had this entire thing plotted out before he wrote the first issue, so it’s not like he was making it up as he went along – he could go back and change some things in earlier issues if they didn’t jibe with what came later. So he knows what is going to happen to Tom before we do, but we never get the sense that he’s trying to trick us. He leads us from one thing to another, and it’s mysterious, but about the time we suspect something about Tom in issue #3, Tom himself voices it and he and the Gambler discuss it, so even if we think it, Schirmer nicely anticipates our ideas.
Obviously, the book is a mystery, and some characters (the Judge, for example) know more than we (and Tom) do, but Schirmer never seems to be pulling a fast one on us. As Tom learns what’s going on, we do. It’s a nice way to read a comic.
Balboni continues to do nice work on the art – she has some issues with perspective, as when the silent girl shoots a rifle in issue #3, but overall, she does a good job, especially with layouts and Dutch angles, which add to the strangeness of Tom’s search and make the entire West, even the landscape, seem like it’s conspiring against him. There’s a terrific sequence in the middle of issue #3 when Tom is inside a wooden shack, and Balboni illuminates the spaces in between the planks of the walls and keeps everything else black, so Tom walks through a black void full of parallel orange lines, which is very disorienting. When the comic gets really weird in issue #4, she does a good job making sure the art stays (relatively) grounded, so that Schirmer’s flights of fancy can remain anchored a bit – Balboni gives us some fanciful stuff, but she draws it roughly, so it fits in with the setting and doesn’t appear to bizarre. It’s a good way to draw the book, because Schirmer does get a bit bizarre.
The coloring on the book remains excellent, too – I already mentioned the wooden shack, but the rough browns of the desert blend nicely with the oranges and yellows in the sky, and late in issue #4, as the sun goes down, we get gorgeous purples above the hills, which ties in with the idea that Tom’s odyssey is coming to an end.
I don’t think I misread the end of the story, although it’s certainly possible. What is nice is that Schirmer makes us think about things, which is never a bad thing when you read something. Black Jack Ketchum is exciting, sure, but it also has a lot on its mind, and even though I don’t want to get into what’s on its mind too much, it’s still a neat way for Schirmer to get where he wants to go. You can still pre-order the trade, I think (it’s in the latest Previews, and I’m sure the cut-off date hasn’t passed), and it appears that it will be out in June. It’s a clever, nice-looking story that stays with you, as it gives you plenty to think about.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆