A Review of Darkness Outside of the Night

I am fortunate to have enjoyed the opportunity to write for Sequart over the past year and a half.  From one-shot reviews, articles and editorials, to beginning to write selections for my serialized critical book, Sharpening the Image, the folks here have provided me with an invaluable opportunity to grow as a writer of comics criticism.  Some readers might have noticed the slight reorganization of the online magazine to more clearly delineate articles from review, editorials from serialized articles, etc.  The past half dozen articles I’ve put out have been the latter; however, I wanted to take an opportunity to review an emotionally cathartic—and yet difficult—graphic novel that I think readers need to experience.  Obviously, I’ll keep working on my Image articles as often as I’m able, but Sharpening the Image is a part of a greater narrative that I’m trying to piece together and requires much more “big picture thinking,” whereas writing the one-shot articles and reviews provides me with a nice break from the long haul of the major projects.  So I hope you’ll forgive the temporary departures now and again.

Anyhow, I finally got an opportunity to sit down and read Xie Peng and Duncan Jebsen’s Darkness Outside of the Night. It has been on my “read and review” pile for some time now, and I sat down to see what the buzz was about. Only one word came to mind as I flipped past the final page of the story:

Wow.

I’m not really sure that whatever I write will do this book much justice.  I’m still trying to process what I read, truth be told.  I’m probably a little more aware of the world outside of the U.S. than most, but I’m not sure that’s saying much; so I was a little concerned if I was going to be able to pick up on all of the nuances within the story that were mentioned in the introductory comments about how this work is a sort of allegory for the people’s plight in China, from the suffocation of individualism to the monster that their industrial machine is for those living there—especially those persons living in rural China who dare venture into the “big city.”  Further, the divide between the rural and urban lifestyles is painfully explored as depicted in the scene where the plucky, orange little hero is invited to the party and “enjoy a slice of cake” with the rest of the city folk.  So is this work too China-centric for Western reader?  Is it only a comic that readers “in the know” would appreciate?

Far from it.  In fact, Frank Norris talked about the anxiety over finding a “Great American Author” at the turn of the 20th Century.  He pointed out of different the people from one end of the U.S. are from one another, and that if a writer could capture their essence and appeal to them both, then perhaps s/he might also appeal to persons outside of the U.S. and throughout the world–making them simply but more importantly, a Great Author–period.  This book seems to have that sort of appeal.  After all, aren’t most—if not all— countries dealing with the potentially soul-crushing effects of commercialism?  It seems this conflict between the still innocent but world-wearied protagonist and his urban, mask-wearing counterparts speaks to this.  While I can recognize certain elements of the art that remind of other Asian styles I’ve seen, I’m not entirely sure there is anything in particular that marks this work as distinctly concerned with Chinese or Asian culture alone.  The appeal and relevancy is there for an extremely wide audience.

And then there’s the art.  I know I rushed through it too quickly, as I felt like there were so many pages just inviting readers to sit and linger over each panel.  From the lush, warm colors to the heavy, oppressive black ink that threatens to blot out the point-hatted protagonist, the emotions bubble to the paper’s surface and demand the reader’s utmost attention.  There is simply no rushing through this book.  I believe I read that Peng took between four to six years to complete this work.  The amount of detail etched into this captivating story makes this no surprise.  There’s certainly a danger in a book like this to rush the reading where the plot is secondary to the impressions being built up in the reader’s mind; however, a work like this definitely needs time to soak up both the words and the artwork.

This is a book that provides readers with an absolutely refreshing—though not necessarily the most uplifting—break from the sort of reading experience many comics in the mainstream offer both in its artistic techniques and narrative style.  While many comic book readers may not be familiar with Tabella Publishing, this is exactly the sort of book that will make readers and critics sit and up begin to take notice of them now.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dr. Forrest C. Helvie lives in Bristol, CT with his wife and two sons. He is an assistant professor of developmental English at Norwalk Community College in Connecticut. He received his Ph.D. in English Literature & Criticism from Indiana University of Pennsylvania where he wrote his dissertation on the influence of canonical American literature on the development of the comic book superhero. His literary interests are broad-ranging from medieval Arthurian to 19th-century American, and most importantly, pedagogy, comics studies, and super-heroes. He regularly writes for Sequart and reviews comics for Newsarama. Forrest can also be found on Twitter (@fhelvie) discussing all things comics related.

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