Black Forest

Written by Todd Livingston and Robert Tinnell
Art by Neil Vokes
104 pages, black and white
Published by Image Comics

Do you ever get the impression that you’re not reading so much a comic, but a movie pitch? It’s a phenomenon that crops up from time to time, often following in the wake of a comic suddenly getting an impressive option reported in the news. (Like, for instance, the fun 30 Days of Night.) It’s a feeling I was never able to shake while reading The Black Forest—that some creators figured this would be a way to both tell their story the way they wanted it to, and get it optioned for Hollywood. Everyone wins, right?

It’s 1916, and the Great War rages across Europe. America hasn’t entered the war yet, but American pilot Jack Shannon is already there helping France defend itself against the German invasion. His new mission, though, is to bring stage magician and secret occult expert Archie Caldwell deep ito the Black Forest to stop the Germans from achieving their dastardly plan: using Dr. Frankenstein’s technologies to raise up an army of undying soldiers. But Frankenstein’s monsters are hardly the only evil that lurks deep in the Black Forest, as Jack and Archie are about to learn to their dismay.

In The Black Forest‘s creator biographies, writers Todd Livingston and Robert Tinnell are both listed as writer/directors, and this fact didn’t surprise me in the slightest. The Black Forest follows a very tight and familiar movie story structure, opening with a vignette to introduce our protagonist, followed by the introduction of the main plot. From there it assembles a cast of characters, brings on board the gloating villain, and then proceeds to showcase one double-cross after another as it hurtles towards a conclusion. Is this a bad thing? Certainly not. Livingston and Tinnell know how to keep their story moving at a good clip, and they’re certainly having fun introducing all sorts of familiar monsters and character archetypes. I guess the problem is that on the big screen, you’d have an assortment of good (or bad) actors to breathe life into these characters and bring a little something special to the role. Just on the printed page, there’s nothing new here: it’s the cocky pilot, the wise occultist, the sexy gypsy, the evil mastermind, and so on. It’s not a bad story by any stretch of the imagination, but there’s a real sense of “I’ve seen this before” the whole way through the book. In the end, I wanted to like this more than I actually could because I just didn’t find anything terribly new about what seems like an attempt to cram in every legend and public domain monster into a single volume.

I don’t recall ever seeing Neil Vokes using a gray ink wash on his art before, but it’s an interesting end result. It’s a good match for the setting of the book, between the war of the trenches and the bleakness of the Black Forest itself. Everything is muddy and bleak, and it’s an interesting contrast to the very cartoony character designs that Vokes draws with. Vokes sticks with a simple six-panel grid here (which really just encourages the whole “movie pitch” theory with its similarity to movie storyboards) that is fairly easy to follow, although I do wish that he’d broken the grid for some of the action scenes, where it seems like having slightly bigger panels might have resulted in a more exciting view of the fights. On the whole, attractive, although I do hope I’m not the only one who found that it becomes harder and harder to tell the difference between Archie and Dr. Dye. Sometimes there is such a thing as too much gray wash and cartoony characters on the same page.

The Black Forest is certainly entertaining in places, but a seasoned movie-goer will probably be able to call every single twist and turn contained within the pages. Would I go see The Black Forest in a theatre? Probably, provided the cast and director were good. There’s a lot of potential here for a fun movie, but I just wish that we’d gotten a little more excitement and originality in the graphic novel. This just seems a little too calculated and by-the-numbers to hold any great interest for me. I wish they’d taken some narrative chances here and made it a little more unpredictable and exciting. Sure, there’s always the fear that doing so wouldn’t make it “Hollywood” enough… but somehow, I think that’s just what it’s missing to make this really enticing for the big screen. Here’s hoping that turns up if it ever does become a movie.

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