While reading Black City – almost voraciously enough to warrant watching over a webcam – I couldn’t shake from my mind a set of twinned Tom Waits songs: We’re All Mad Here and Everything You Can Think of is True. I was initially slow to the realization that, despite major musical differences, they are in fact the same song; the same sets of creepy,carnivorous and carnivalesque stories and images, just seen from two different sides of the mirror. Like those songs Black City is a book both familiar and strangely new; the same but so, so different. The most evident example of this has to be that it’s published by Gestalt, Australia’s self-proclaimed ‘premier graphic novel publishing house’ – a title to which I can only attest – but it’s a prose piece; as in without pictures, as in only words.
It’s made instantly apparent by all of those words that the book’s author, Christian Read, brings with him a radical new voice; his writing brisk and irreverent but ironclad in its intelligence and poetry. With those words, and in that voice he tells a horror story that is more often than not hilarious. It’s a tale that has been told many, many times before – tropic in its topics and more than half homage – but because of the temperament which which he tells it the resulting read is like nothing else you’ve experienced. Around that story the words build a world, one in which every kind of magic ever seen in a story exists, but its wielded in ways we havn’t seen before: the supernatural stuff seeping into street violence, through the arts ( literary, visual and … culinary) and even effecting economics. Black City then is both a book and a place wherein everything you can think of us true; even, fittingly, that mythological creature known as Tom Waits.
Books aren’t windows to wonderful worlds inside your head. They’re the hilts and triggers to weapons, they’re snares to secrets and whispered conspiracies. Books are the most dangerous things in the world…
Given their proven track record and stable of stunning artists it is initially a bit surprising that Gestalt would have received this pitch from Read and released it as a novel; based on its concept Black City would seemingly have sat nicely next to Torn, Unmasked or The Eldritch Kid on the shelf. It’s also something of a risk because here, in Ebook form, Read has nothing to hide behind: none of Gestalt’s trademark publishing prowess ( only Archaia can compete in terms of print quality) or the potency of a good painted panel to disguise or distract from his dialogue, his storytelling. It was a risk well worth taking though because a comic simply couldn’t contain this many words and as prose writer Read really understands the power of words.
There is that critical cliche that a stories setting can really become a character within it; while that is certainly true of this book’s anonymous, atrophying cityscape the saying applies more to its words. Here characters are literally characters and language the lifeblood of both good guys and bad; its a tale about text. More literally though it’s a merger of gaudy old-world occult tales – like Maughm’s The Magician or Lovecraft’s [Anything] – with the more modern grit of urban ganglands: in this town, the titular Black City, you wear the colours of your cult, you deal enchanted crack and splay your coat to hock counterfeit artifacts whose magic, like an unreal Rolex, will keep ticking just long enough for the dealer to get out of town and you to get into trouble. Magic doesn’t change society in the city, it just makes it more dramatic.
The right book bites you, seduces and tattoos you.
Read’s writing style is pulpy in the best possible sense of the term; which is to say not shallow or simple, but pointed. His phrases are heavily punctuated, a ful stop every few words, so you swallow them by the handful with a rapid, rabid rhythm; and split into paragraphs only several sentences long the pages of this book fly by just as fast. The form of Read’s prose obviously very functional beneath the hard-boiled poetics of its facade; so that it becomes near impossible to put the book down once you’ve begun, each end of chapter tempting you to come back for just one more. The combination of noir narcissism, wordplay wit and a well-indexed imagination that Read’s narratorial voice conveys leads a lot of these lines to kill: comedic, chilling and oh so cool. Their structuring though is sometimes so unstressed that the odd sentence will come across as clunky, or a line of dialogue will be only ambiguously attached to its character for the sake of spiking pace but these flops are few and far between; the book’s overall hit:miss ratio making the choice of distinctive voice an easy one.
Though it is written in short sentences Black City has no shortage of large ideas. The city has a whole, sordid history to it that unfolds slowly before us; past bloodshed’s blooming an thickening. As he did in The Eldritch Kid Christian Read creates concepts worthy of complete stories and tosses them out as asides, as single stitches in the dark tapestry that is Black City. This approach lends the novel a meaty richness that it could otherwise have lacked, but it also means that sometimes the tale lacks clear direction, that its focus is somewhat askew. These sections that leapt from the perspective of our protagonist Lark to that of other, tertiary characters were not as well distinguished as I feel they could have been; the novel’s voice too consistent to legitimize the change in perspective. Simply having a strong, singular voice is almost too much to expect of a debut author, so asking for several is an insane standard; my issue then is mostly a structural one. Traditionally pulp thrillers are linear accelerations but Black City loops, slows and doubles back, almost rhyzomatic in shape.
“Come on. I’ll show you the ways a Magician can make money in this town.”
Though it is to be expected of a noir the plot that begins as a simple investigation grows more and more complex as it progresses, with conspiracy stacking on conspiracy; the cops, the robbers and civilians all creating chaos for the PI in the middle of the mess. It’s a tried and true approach but combined with magic it becomes something of a harder structure to swallow; when the crimes and schemes are no longer restricted by the rules of our reality the levels of complexity become infinite an Christian has an imagination up to the task of depicting that. So even though there is plenty of time spent in those aforementioned asides establishing the laws of magic the logistics of certain actions are still lost in the fray. Fictional magic ( as opposed to what?) also has that unfortunate feeling of frictionlessness to it that can be hard to overcome; when one can simply wave away concerns with a few words consequences can become negligible; with great power comes no responsibility. Read does a decent job of dealing with this, by making magic hard and binding it to tenets of reality; here it is another sort of science. There are times though, towards the end especially, when he writes characters out of corners with the stuff in a way that didn’t feel completely earned or necessary. Its spectacular enough, sure, but still something of an anti-climax.
So there are some flaws here, some fumbles, but they are in the scheme of things all very small ones. I devoured this book in under twenty-four hours without any effort or intention to rush through it; it’s cliche but I simply couldn’t put it down and that, I think, says more than the previous thousand words. Also telling is the fact that I’m already ready to go a second round and based on that ending it feels like Read is too; hedging his bets for a sequel and perhaps a whole series of city-set Lark stories. I truly hope that he does return to this world, which is already so fleshed-out and full of potential, because he has laid out the groundwork here for something truly special, something unique. Black City is then an origin story in two ways; both as as our introduction to an intriguing new author and as the first entry in what will hopefully be a franchise. In both cases its the most potent and exciting creation that i’ve come across in many years – cementing Christian’s name alongside that of Warren Ellis – and with a bit of work, a slight finesse, a sequel can easily surpass that. I believe this and thus, it is true.