Magnus the Black has taken on a contract to escort a Catholic Cardinal north along the Black Road, a road filled with dangers. How does it fare?
The Black Road #1 feels very much like another of Brian Wood’s other historical fiction stories, Rebels. It takes us to the past and weaves a tale around a central character, Magnus the Black. Wood takes us on his journey north along the Black Road, but also delves into the character’s motivations, his fears, his dreams, his curiosity, and his world.
The beginning of The Black Road #1 is a bit of prose to set the tone of the book with Christianity expanding northward and putting to heel the outsiders. Following this bit of prose, we are given a somber scene, devoid of any dialogue or narrative, detailing the burial of a woman by Magnus. This quiet, sad scene allows you to quickly develop an attachment for Magnus as you want to comfort him after the loss he has suffered.
This is quickly replaced with the hustle and bustle of a town and the cruelty dealt to those who do not convert. It reinforces the prose and helps build the world Magnus the Black inhabits. It is harsh, cruel, and unyielding. Everything and everyone is out to get you if not kill you. Wood continues to reinforce this idea about the world throughout the book, placing Magnus in different situations such as meeting with a blacksmith who hopes to rat him out to the Church, or delaying meeting with his contracted escort for fear it could be a trap.
Wood tells the story in a twofold manner. He uses Magnus’ voice in a narrative combined with dialogue. The narrative allows easy exposition to detail the dangers of the Black Road and the inner thoughts and motivations driving Magnus. This narrative voice is a little simplistic at times, especially when describing characters that Magnus and we as readers have known for less than an entire issue. It feels disingenuous to describe a man as “a good man, who worked hard without complaining and had no airs about him,” when Magnus had only been with the man one day.
The dialogue on the other hand is much more interesting and lets us really get to know Magnus and the characters he interacts with. We are able to see Magnus’ curiosity spark conversation about Christian rituals rather than just have it be told he is curious about them through the narrative voice.
The story does have some jarring transitions. The most glaring one is from a nighttime discussion between Magnus and the Cardinal to a grueling action sequence. The transition is confusing especially given the in-panel context designating “Early.” This usually means a flashback, but in this case it is designating the time of day. It really throws off the entire scene as you struggle to figure out whether or not this had already taken place or is currently taking place.
Garry Brown’s artwork is serviceable. He definitely creates a bleak and dreary world fitting for Wood’s story. The opening burial sequence is deeply moving. He captures Magnus’ emotions with a clenched fist or a soft touch on the woman’s shoulder as he places her in the grave. The emotion ripples off of these pages.
Brown also forgoes many closeup shots of characters’ faces. The only character he really allows for this is the Cardinal and in many of those panels he shrouds him in shadow. This makes it difficult to read the character’s emotions and forces you to rely on Wood’s words to determine the characters’ emotions. In fact, there is an entire group of soldiers that are completely faceless. You only see their helmets and nothing more. It makes the art hard to relate to and gives it an almost impersonal vibe.
The main action sequence is exciting. Brown mixes up some blow-by-blow sequential panels with others skipping to important points of the action. He meshes these two together very well to create a dynamic, engaging, and exciting action sequence.
The most problematic aspect of the comic is the actual lettering. Steve Wands uses white rectangular word bubbles for the narrative pieces that utterly clash with Brown’s artwork. It actually distracts from the artwork throughout the entire issue. The border he adds to these bubbles also makes them look like they were almost cut and pasted onto the page. It looks sloppy and unprofessional.
The Black Road #1 has the promise of an interesting character journey, but it doesn’t fully deliver. The story has quite a number of harsh transitions that require adjustment to the confusion. Magnus’ narrative voice is uninspiring and ultimately detracts from the dialogue which is much more interesting. Finally, the lettering is absolutely terrible.
- Solid dialogue
- Magnus the Black has promise as a character
- An engaging action sequence
- Harsh transitions can be confusing
- The lettering
- The artwork can feel impersonal