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Black Summer #6

Posted: Thursday, May 15, 2008
By: David Wallace

Warren Ellis
Juan Jose Ryp, Mark Sweeney (c)
Avatar Press
After something of a mid-series lull, Black Summer regains the strong form of its earlier issues here. We see the outcome of the Seven Guns' battle with their opposite numbers at the same time as John Horus descends to speak with the military, as the book commences the build-up towards a climax that promises to be more complex and layered than I had expected.

Throughout the series, Warren Ellis has made sure to dedicate a certain amount of space in every issue to the back story of the Seven Guns, giving each member of the team a believable and fairly original motivation for wanting to play superhero, and fleshing out their characters in flashback sequences. Dominic Hyde's character gets some welcome attention here, with Ellis contrasting the idealism of his younger self with his opposition to the actions taken by John Horus at the start of this mini-series. The happier, more optimistic moments of days past are juxtaposed with the horrific violence that has resulted out of Horus and Tom Noir's activities in the present day, and it gives the issue a bittersweet quality that reinforces the idea that the world may have gone to Hell, but that it has been a result of good intentions.

We're also provided with a long-overdue scene of intelligent dialogue between Horus and the military forces that have been attacking him for the last couple of issues, with an exchange that examines John's own perception of the mess that he has created, and reveals that he might not have all the answers after all. Ellis also uses the scene to make an implied plot point from an earlier issue more explicit, revealing the apparently-deceased Tom Noir to be even more of a key player than he first appeared and making me wonder whether we'll see more of the character in the final issue.

Some readers have complained that the political elements of Black Summer have taken a backseat since the first issue, but I think that those who are bemoaning the lack of politically-oriented debate might be missing the point. Yes, the series opened with the murder of the U.S. President by a superhero who had taken the law into his own hands, but Ellis seems far more interested in exploring the moral elements of his story than he is in lecturing us on party politics. The decision to focus on the characters and their individual motivation (rather than whether the current President of the USA deserves to be killed for his perceived crimes) anchors the book in more dramatic territory, allowing Ellis to examine the deeper moral issues of whether anybody should be allowed to take the law into their own hands, and to what extent individual members of society should be given power over everybody else. Instead of having his characters spout cliché liberal or conservative points of view, Ellis allows them to express multi-faceted points of view on issues of national importance as viewed through a superhero lens, introducing political discussion into the book without making it feel as though it has been forced into his story. It's been interesting to see Ellis revisit the same moral and political issues that he explored in The Authority almost a decade ago, and I'll be interested to see whether he attempts to draw any conclusions in his final issue, or whether he'll leave readers to make up their own minds.

As well as offering intellectual stimulation, Black Summer provides a treat for the eyes, too. The book's artist, Juan Jose Ryp, has won over many new fans with his impressive visuals on this series, and this issue is no exception. Ryp's work is intricate and highly detailed, from an opening splash page that must have taken days to render (complete with 'easter eggs' for eagle-eyed readers in the form of several different cartoon characters that are scattered around the page) to the minute details that are present in even the most mundane scenes (such as the logo on a coffee cup or the graffiti and detritus that can be seen on the pavement during one of the book's flashback conversations). Ryp has a strong grasp of form, as evidenced by his consistent character designs. He has even taken the time to give the Guns' seven adversaries distinctive and different costume designs, despite their overall similarity. There's also a wonderful three-dimensional quality to the final shot of John Horus as his adversaries descend, setting up an epic showdown for the final issue.

However, I do occasionally feel that Ryp's pages are a little busy, and that his storytelling can sometimes be unclear from one panel to the next. The uniformity of the line weight in his inking occasionally makes it difficult to distinguish the characters from their surroundings, and the individual panels can sometimes threaten to become a mess of lines when more definition might be useful -- even if it came at the expense of the high level of detail. That said, careful readers shouldn't have too much trouble working out what is going on in most of his panels, even if the storytelling isn't the most flowing or elegant. Ryp's style is a good match for the harsh and uncompromising tone of Ellis' script, and I was pleased to see the back cover of this issue announce a second collaboration between the two creators; No Hero, that will be published by Avatar later this year.

To label Black Summer as a superhero comic would be to sell the concept short, because it's difficult to identify anyone as the hero of this book. For example, there are increasingly obvious parallels between Horus and the murdered President, and it's perfectly possible to understand why Frank Blacksmith is so keen to take the Seven Guns out of the picture given the carnage and destruction that they have caused over the last few issues. That's a testament to Ellis' skill in crafting a morally ambiguous and complex story that refuses to commit to a single point of view, and it makes the story far more engaging and involving than many superhero books manage to be. Black Summer is a comic that has intellectual depth without sacrificing the visual thrills that are a big part of the appeal of the superhero genre – and from the looks of the last page, issue #7 is going to provide a big bang ending to go along with the meaty moral debate that the book has offered up for consumption here. I look forward to it.



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