Publisher: Image Comics
Story By: Brian Schirmer
Art By: Claudia Balboni
Release Date: 2nd December, 2015
If pressed to describe Issue one of Black Jack Ketchum I might say it has elements of Rogue Trooper, The Adjustment Bureau and The Bourne Identity amongst others. It’s also a Western. Sounds completely loopy, right? It is, and I’m not even sure where to begin as I review it. It isn’t bad, just the opposite in fact. It’s just that the story presented in issue one is about as jumbled as the influences I mentioned above.
Here is what I do know. The titular character is Tom Ketchum and he has a speaking sidearm. He is travelling with a mute girl who is a sharp shot with a Winchester Rifle. He gambles, has no real recollection of his past, and has the ability to use Saloons to travel over great distances in little or no time. Also, he’s a wanted man, or rather; Black Jack Ketchum is a wanted man. The problem is that Tom shares the same name and a passing resemblance to this criminal…
If that hasn’t piqued your interest already (and I think it should), he is being hunted by a mystical antagonist called ‘The Judge.’ In the employ of The Judge are subordinates called ‘Dusters,’ that have no features. Instead where there should be a face is blackness, and within the blackness are specks of light that would seem to resemble a night sky. Add into all this is what would seem to be a demon train and some kind of prophecy relating to Black Jack Ketchum becoming or doing something, and you have more than enough intrigue to make me want to know what will be happening next.
The story is the brainchild of Brian Schirmer (author of Ultrasylvania) and actual distant relative to the real Black Jack Ketchum. I’m not familiar with his previous work, but in BJK he’s crafted a story that seems worthy of David Lynch or Terry Gilliam in oddness and appeal. Initially it’s a wee bit hard to follow as we jump back and forward in time and does need a few reads to get to grips with it. At first I wasn’t sure if this worked, but on later reads I got the impression that this was deliberate by design and actually made the story that little bit more enjoyable. Changing the timeline back and forward is a useful mechanism for delivering the various elements of the story, world and characters that I don’t think I fully understood until now. That’s clever.
The art is by Claudia Balboni whose past work includes IDW’s Star Trek. She is an artist that I’m not all that aware of, but there are three elements to her work in this comic that impressed the hell out of me. First of all her panel layouts is some of the best I’ve seen, and the use of non-uniform layouts that guide your eye through the story are a functional thing of beauty. The page layout showing Tom and his sidekick using the saloon network to travel is fantastic. Second she’s an artist that can use crosshatch shading properly; it’s a refreshing change to see this style of shading used where it doesn’t overpower that artwork. Finally, and most impressively, the detail in her shadow work is exceptional, specifically in the panels that only have fire as a light source.
Black Jack Ketchum is an interesting and fun debut, mixing western and magical genres in a manner that is enthralling. The structure to the writing is a little different and merits interest, and the potential relationship between Tom Ketchum and his gun looks like it’ll have a lot of mileage. In the characters of Tom, Gun and The Mute we have three western archetypes that we know work (the Unwilling Hero, The Smartass Sidekick, and The Trope Kid), and that’s just touching the surface of the two merged genres, potentially there is a lot of mileage in those to explore. Its’ an engaging story where subsequent reads only increased my appreciation of the comic. I’m interested to see how future issues develop this bizarre, distinctive and lively story.
The writer of this piece was: Andrew McGlinn
Andrew Tweets from @Jockdoom.