Here’s a Kickstarter success story: The Calamitous Black Devils, by cartoonist Joseph Schmalke, had its first three issues funded through the crowdfunding program. Blending the genres of war and supernatural horror, this tells the story of an elite commando unit tasked with breaking up a demonic summoning ritual, only for things to turn quite messy. It’s a good concept, and the strong front cover made a good first impression.
Sadly, the content within was highly problematic. The prologue was intriguing, and quickly caught my interest by introducing a menacing villain and defiant heroes, and a tense life-or-death cliffhanger that also does the job of setting up the eponymous Black Devils as a formidable force. But from there, things quickly fell apart. Really, the problems begin with the”This all started” caption at the beginning of page 3, as this marks the beginning of near 30 pages of Priest relating via captions the story of how our protagonists got to be in their current situation, with only 3 pages at the end of us seemingly experiencing the “present” of the story and the status quo that will carry the series forward.
I’m reminded of an early script of my own that I wrote at one point that was heavy in flashback, and editor Steven Forbes gave me advice I haven’t forgotten: in a flashback, you’ve added an extra degree of disconnect between the reader and the story, and they won’t engage as much as they could because they feel like they’re witnessing something that’s already happened in the world of the story, and so any flashback has a built in expectation for the sequence to end and for us to get back to the “real” story that we’re actually supposed to be invested in. As a reader, I experienced that with The Calamitous Black Devils #1. I read the issue, and I didn’t feel in the moment, I didn’t feel like I was experiencing the battle. Because every image was accompanied by a narrative caption that said “And then this happened”, describing what we were seeing as something the protagonist has already lived through and moved on from. I don’t know if I’m being nebulous with this complaint, does this make sense?
But more than the inherent disconnecting nature of this narrative structure affecting my enjoyment of the book, I had issues with how that structure was executed. The story is at its best when it lets the characters talk and interact with one another. At these points, the personalities shine through and the plot flows quite nicely. But then you have sequences like page 6, where literally half the page is taken up with a wall of text. And even elsewhere, in general the captions are just too loaded with content. There are chunks of this issue where the storytelling is based around a picture of a guy standing still, accompanied by a massive caption detailing their life history and the role they play within the ensemble cast. It’s “tell don’t show” writing, and as big ideas and dense mythologies and secret histories and old gods are thrown at us in heaps, the exposition dump had my eyes glassing over. Take, for example, the Dark Bishop. We are told about what a vile, terrifying, evil human being he is. And we are told that Priest hates him, that the Dark Bishop has made his life hell and he’s desperate for retribution. But we see none of this on the page. The Dark Bishop hardly gets any lines. He’s a total cypher. It all comes back to that feeling of disconnect.
More frustrating, even on the basic mechanics, the writing falls down at times. “Vomitous” is spelled as “vomitus”, “lose” mispelled as “loose”, “murder” is written when it’s meant to be “murderer”, “they learned about the purpose of bombing mission” clearly has a missing “the” in there. More than narrative faults, things like this really bug me, as they’re so easily fixed. Simple spellchecking, or close reading of your work both as a script and as a lettered comic, would have picked up on these glaring errors. But that wasn’t done, and there’s no easier way for your book to look amateur than for it to be littered with typos. Whether or not you can tell better stories than the big boys at Marvel and DC, how often do they let such basic errors slip through the net? Little things like this are what make an editor invaluable, folks! And if you can’t hire an editor, make sure to be your own!
The art is good in places – I love the design of the baddie in the opening prologue – but in other areas it feels very rough, with shaky anatomy and characters having inconsistent appearances. Furthermore, I think it feels too bare. It doesn’t necessarily need colour, but I think some more tone or grayscale could have enhanced the aesthetic of the comic a lot. Instead there’s something about the visuals that just feel incomplete.
So, The Calamitous Black Devils gets off to a ropey start. However, the status quo established by the end of the first issue suggests a much more promising issue #2 lies ahead, so it could be worth sticking with this series and seeing where it goes from here.
Calamitous Black Devils #1 is available to buy from Joseph Schmalke’s website.