Webcomic Wednesday - “Black Death” by Sammy Harkham
I hope you’ll pardon the imagery after what you’ve just seen, but cartoonist Sammy Harkham is a culture-maker with a great many arrows in his quiver. He’s an owner of Los Angeles’s Family Store, purveyor of an impeccable array of art books, comics, music, and more. He’s also an owner of the store’s sister cinematheque Cinefamily, an arthouse movie theater renowned for its guests and programming. Kramers Ergot, the comics anthology he edits and has released both by himself and through several publishers (the most recent volume, #8, came out from PictureBox Books), is bar none the most influential comics anthology of the young century; its landmark, phonebook-sized fourth volume, released in 2003, revolutionized alternative comics with its showcase of the “noisy,” SFF-influenced aesthetic of Providence, Rhode Island’s Fort Thunder collective — equally concerned with the marks put on the page as on what story those marks communicate. And as you can see, as a maker of comics himself, Harkham’s got chops that could sit him comfortably in the funnypages of your great-grandpa’s golden-age archives.
Originally serialized in his solo series Crickets and now hosted on fellow cartoonist/editor/publisher Jordan Crane’s influential What Things Do webcomics portal, Harkham’s horror-fantasy comic “Black Death” is a deceptive thing. Sure, the title communicates a certain…darkness, but for the longest time you’re so immersed in these bright, buoyant, action-packed drawings that you start to forget. It’s a thrill to watch Harkham put his protagonist through his paces, all while riddled with enough arrows to put both Boromir and Saint Sebastian to shame. Not even when he miraculously survives an arrow to the eye and a fall that would pancake Wile E. Coyote, and is greeted by an enormous, mute golem, do you take the strangeness for darkness.
It’s only after this odd couple chances upon a cowboy-like father and son camping in the nighttime wilderness in the middle of a trek to bury the family’s five-year-old son that the “black death” of the title reveals itself. The arrow-studded protagonist is unwilling or incapable of really facing the remarkable thing that has happened to him; the golem is incapable of communicating except through physical force; the father and son have only their beliefs in the supernatural to go by, and only their desire to have their little boy back to drive them. It’s a recipe for disaster, and the blunt brutality with which Harkham serves up the resulting dish can shock even a seasoned hand. His surface-cute cartooning only heightens the morbidity.
Sweet to the eye, bitter to the taste: That’s “Black Death.”