Written by Chris Charlton and illustrated by David Hollenbach, Black of Heart #1 introduces a gripping murder mystery with elements of noir. It conveys a very real threat through the narration of Detective Drake Harper who is in pursuit of an elusive serial killer. The premise forces readers to question the validity of the trust they place in societal constructs. It stars 1949 in New York City where we see our hard-boiled detective faced with the daunting task of stopping “the Vulture”. This serial killer murders women then dumps their raped and mutilated bodies on the streets to be found.
As the reader comes to find out, the Vulture relies on the anonymity of taxi drivers. The yellow taxi blends into the background of city life. The first issue sets up Detective Harper to potentially become the classic noir hero that inevitably succumbs to moral degradation. His narration makes it clear that he has been jaded by how harsh reality can be. The case begins to consume Harper, and it takes a toll on his personal life. I’m excited to see the direction the author takes with these characters in future issues.
The Vulture is a worthy villain, albeit his identity is somewhat predictable; a consequence of using dramatic irony. However, this does not affect the unsettling nature of the killer. In fact, the character’s role in society is an important factor in creating the suspense. The story makes a point of emphasizing his unassuming appearance which is embodied by the yellow taxi he drives around. In an interview with Ox Eye Media, Charlton explained that the inspiration for the bad guy came from a personal experience with a cab driver. He realized “just how much trust goes into this taxi/passenger relationship”.
Charlton’s chilling writing perfectly pairs with Hollenbach’s art style to convey trauma and horror. The art is impossible to ignore. It shifts between highly realistic and detailed images, to misty disoriented figures. This assimilates how memories function; at times, they can blur in and out of focus – especially when it comes to trauma. The distorted bodies can also allude to the way traumatic events destroy the sense of self. Additionally, the comic steps outside of the noir aesthetic; by incorporating slashes of color, Black of Heart highlights the significance of blood, or a single open blue eye.
One of the most interesting aspects of the comic was the reoccurring theme of the gaze. Women are being stalked from the shadows; their bodies are under constant observation. This is apparent even before they become evidence in the murder investigation. In fact, from the very first panel, horror is present through the omission of the watcher. One panel in particular shows the detectives circled around a body in the morgue. Drawn from a birds-eye perspective, the body remains the center of everyone’s attention. What is shown becomes just as important as what is left lingering in the shadows – just out of sight. It triggers a sense of dread one feels when faced with the unknown.
Although the story is very compelling, there is one aspect that I couldn’t help notice as lacking. The women have very little character and development beyond being just murder victims. The only female character that wasn’t a murder victim is Patty. She is Harper’s wife and has the potential to become a complex character. While only a start, it’s something I wish to see further develop.
It would be nice to see women take an active role in fighting back. I think it’s particularly important because violence against women continue to be a very present threat. In fact, it’s the realism that makes this story so compelling. Despite the story being set in the past, the themes that it touches upon are still relevant today. Hopefully, by the end of the five part mini-series, we’ll get the opportunity to see more development for all the characters.
Black of Heart is a fitting addition to the horror-themed graphic novels Source Point Press typically publishes. Charlton effectively taps into common fears, and builds off of them to create an unnerving story. Hollenbach’s art is simply amazing! It explores the limits of the noir aesthetic, while empowering the narrative. I look forward to reading more of Black of Heart!