Hunter Black - The Webcomic

Fantasy so Hard-Boiled its Yolk is Green...

I can’t really talk about Justin Peniston and William Orr’s Hunter Black without talking about RPGs, specifically tabletop, or “traditional” RPGs. This isn’t new territory for me, to be sure; if you’ve read anything I’ve posted over the last several years, you’ll have undoubtedly encountered my near zealous devotion to the Mass Effect franchise by BioWare, my criticisms of Fallout as reinterpreted by Bethesda, and my belief that good role-playing is a terrific benefit to the aspiring storyteller, no matter the medium. The nature of a role-playing game, after all, is to inhabit a life other than one’s own, and if that isn’t character work, I don’t know what is.

For an author, depending on where you’re sitting at the table, gaming can provide a window into world building, a skill that many aspiring writers overlook, in my humble opinion. Much of my own work here, and in other projects, derives from a gaming tradition of one kind or another – world’s that I’ve built and populated for the benefit of many a player down through the years. I’m not quite obsessive about my world-building, if I’m honest, but I veer towards the compulsive, occasionally consumed by bouts of manic creation (creationing? creationisming?). I do this because I have to know why, another trait that many writers – I feel – forget in favor of flash and sparkle and bells and whistles. I see it a lot in comics, the page-upon-page reveal-after-reveal that means nothing, makes no sense… but makes a real purty pitcture.

I hate that more than you can imagine. It’s hucksterism at the lowest level. It’s playing to the cheap seats. It is, ultimately, insulting to one’s audience.

The point being – see, patience, I get there eventually – is that it’s all well and good to say, hey, we’re telling a story where sailing ships float through the air, but sooner or later, you’re going to have to know why they can do that, even if you never care to share those reasons with your audience. This is the stuff of internal logic, and it is where stories live and die for me; the story has to make sense, or else it’s not a narrative; rather, it becomes an excuse to string together “cool bits” in the hope that they’ll coalesce into some sort of story whole. That’s not a safe bet, in my experience. I’m not asking you to justify why the Batmobile never gets caught in traffic; but I damn well expect that if the Batmobile is bulletproof this week, it’s going to be bulletproof next week, too, or I’ll want to know the reason why.

Which brings us to Hunter Black, and the world and adventures of its titular character. As I write this, we’re just beginning the second book of Hunter’s tale, and his world is continuing to expand, its depth and breadth substantial from just the handful of hints that have thus far been dropped. It’s a gamer’s world, and Peniston has made no secret of it; each strip is accompanied by notes from the author, everything from his thoughts on Orr’s art to the gaming pedigree of characters, locations, culture. He’s got a gamer’s enthusiasm, both for his tale and his creation, yet this has never overcome his duties as a writer. This isn’t Mary-Sue-ism; this is a story, and while the strip benefits from said enthusiasm, it has not, as yet, become a slave to it. This, as much as anything, draws me back again and again.

That would be compelling enough for me, but there’s a wrinkle to the work that makes it all the more engaging. Fantasy has been done to death, to such an extent that it’s very hard to cut a new narrative. Stories seem to follow either a strict adherence to the tropes of the form, or to reject them out of hand without understanding their merit. Dark Fantasy, as a genre, isn’t new either, but the decision to pursue “noir” rather than “dark” is one that’s seen less attention, and the subtitle of the series “Hard-Boiled Fantasy” is taken to heart. It’s apparent from the first visuals, the use of the palette. This is fantasy-noir, Hunter maintaining a first-person narrative reminiscent of Mickey Spillane, but with more restraint, and Peniston touches the narrative with a self-awareness of style and genre that is both genuinely fond and enthusiastically naive. It makes for a refreshing read in the face of countless writers pursuing noir with an ironic twist. Noir does not endure irony well within its walls, I think; it rapidly devolves into self-parody. Peniston has managed to avoid this quite deftly, in no small part due to his collaborator’s contributions. Orr’s art is evocative, stylistic, and keeps from becoming overwrought without losing any distinctiveness. He plays with noir without falling in love with his shadows, and the selective palette, predominantly in grayscale, aids this wonderfully.

Like the work we’re doing here, Hunter Black is in early days, and as such, it’s difficult to evaluate the story as a whole (something that I know has been said about Lady Sabre in more than a few quarters; something that I readily admit, as well). Perhaps these similarities render a bias, but it’s one of the things that I find most engaging – not only watching Hunter’s world and story unfold, but watching as Peniston and Orr wrap their arms around this world they’ve created, and reveal it to us, one strip at a time.

Hold fast!