Black Jack Ketchum is a graphic novel I really wanted to love – stylized artwork, thoughtful storyline, and an all around intelligent piece of work that doesn’t pander to readers. But upon completion, I admittedly was shaking my head in frustration: something just didn’t work. I’m all for metaphysical musings on life but I really need a much more coherent story in which to frame it and put it into context. So much about this book felt fandom – from the settings to the characters. And so I was left disenfranchised from the story and never really got into the main characters’ plight (either the tangible or the fantastical).
Story: Tom Ketchum has been mistaken for a very nasty outlaw and has the authorities on his back. Along with writer Ambrose Bierce and a silent but deadly young woman, he will go in search of the outlaw in order to clear his name. But with supernatural dealings all around, he may not survive physically (or metaphysically) to reach that goal.
First off, it should be fairly obvious that the search for outlaw Ketchum (‘catch ’em’ – get it?) is a MacGuffin. In a cleverly circular way, Tom Ketchum is searching for himself. Along the way, he is pursued by a very violent and implacable judge and 3 mysterious figures made of space (as in outer) covered in dusters and hats. Add in stopping points of a 1940s movie set and shack with an endless interior, and you get the idea that we aren’t in Kansas any more.
I wish I understood the set pieces and points more. This book felt like one of those great ideas when explained in person but hopelessly opaque without the creator to guide us through his thought process. It definitely requires several read-throughs – but without a compelling enough set of characters, there’s not a lot of desire to do so. And so unsurprisingly, after the first read, I felt really disappointed. Clearly, I had missed too much to really understand what was going on with the character and his revelations.
The artwork is clean and the book mercifully (or frustratingly) low on dialogue boxes. Author Schirmer resists the temptation to overtell – which is admirable but has to be balanced so as not to undertell and leave the reader scratching figurative heads. The art has to make up for the low key approach and unfortunately just doesn’t give us enough clues to get to the other side of the story. But it is quite lovely and the artist does a great job of quirky wordless communications between characters.
There’s something really clever here but less discerning readers hoping for a good yarn (and even those who read more carefully like myself) will likely be frustrated. It’ll take a few more reads, I feel, before it all really sinks in. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.