World Comic Book Review

2nd March 2024

Black Cloak Volume One (review)

Writer: Kelly Thompson

Artist: Meredith McClaren

Image Comics, September 2023

Kelly Thompson is a veteran writer of American superhero comic books, and who with artist Meredith McClaren has created a new series, Black Cloak, published by Image Comics. Reading Black Cloak, with its intermingled genres of fantasy, crime, science fiction, and royal intrigue, reminds us of an improbable magic trick where some talented wizard throws random pieces of a jigsaw puzzle in the air, and they each all somehow land on a card table, perfectly in place. Here is publisher Image Comics’ promotional copy for the first issue of the title:

Eisner Award-winning writer KELLY THOMPSON heads to Image for the first time with BLACK CLOAK, an all-new series with artist MEREDITH McCLAREN! Blade Runner style mixes with SAGA-esque drama in a delectable fantasy/sci-fi blend as two Black Cloaks try to solve the murder of a beloved prince in Kiros, the last city in the known world, before his murder tips the city into war.

A Black Cloak is a cop, and within Kiros, they are disliked and sometimes feared by the residents of the more sordid quarters of the city. In a very dodgy bar / flophouse called The Salty Crow, two patrons mutter between themselves: “If you don’t move they can’t see you.” The response is blunt: “That’s a myth. Black cloaks can see fucking everything.” Everyone has an opinion, and for the most part, it is not welcoming.

Rough and tumble Detective Phaedra Essex, together with her partner Pax, a heavyset Black Cloak fairy with a very sensible apprehension about mermaids, are investigating a murder. And it is not just any murder. Lying with a knife wound to the middle of his chest on a dirty, unmade bed is Freyal III of Sidra, the heir to the throne of Kiros. Essex knows him well, because, before she was exiled from aristocratic circles, she was betrothed to marry him.

The murder sets off a chain of inquiry leading Essex back into her past at the palace, dealing with surly guards and a jaundiced queen; to a secret hiding spot in an unnaturally high trees (featuring wry signs like “Non-Flyers: Proceed With Caution Beyond This Point”); to a brothel; and points in between, concluding in the depths of the city. The most compelling scene in the entire volume is when Essex and Pax visit the Lagoon, home of the maids, in an effort to procure evidence. The maids regard anyone – Black Cloak or otherwise – as potential food, and the ferocity and casual contempt of the Black Cloaks as anything other than a snack in chilling. It does not help that the maids can open their mouths very wide indeed, like a fringehead fish (or for those not familiar with exotic fish, like the Predator alien from the motion picture franchise of the same name).

Other scenes are more fun. When the crown prince’s murder leaks, the foyer of the Black Cloaks’ headquarters is filled with people claiming to be the murderer of Freyal, the love child of Freyal, Freyal’s lover, or a witness to Freyal’s murder. This is some sort of tabloid-driven hysteria, where everyone wants in on the scandal, and it is an amusing reminder of how desperate people can be to be famous. By “people”, we are given the opportunity to see the rich array of races occupying Kiros: centaurs, elves, lamia, humans, creatures of flame and creatures of cloud, and “dracona”, who appear to be of dragon pedigree. Kiros is riddled with racial tension, and the class struggle too: the elven royalty are far removed from the seedy and sad life of Dace, Freyal’s prostitute friend who was also killed, her body dumped in the Lagoon. The trail leads the two detectives to the home of the powerful Phinneas II of Thane, a good man who was the former lover of Essex’s mother. Surrounded by opulence, Pax mutters, “Fucking rich people”.

Essex and Pax work out who the murderer is (and contrary to our rule about merrily dispensing spoilers without warning, we will this time hold our fire). But the truth comes at a terrible cost to Kiros. Kiros, it becomes plain by the end of the story, is just as much a character as anyone else in the title: multifaceted, intriguing, and fragile. Black Cloak is an impressive story from a writer who we have quietly followed for some time, for her efforts on Marvel Comics’ titles. Ms Thompson’s own concepts do not disappoint.

Finally, a word on the art. The pitch for the story might have suggested something grittier than the delightful, often aethereal artwork of Ms McClaren. It is her colours which completely steal the show. In the palace with the Queen, the palette is brown, gold and subdued: in the nightclub called Crux, the colours are lurid and toxic. In flashbacks, the colours have an insubstantial quality to them, the memories rendered like cloudy, light dreams of happier times. Re-reading the title just to observe the shift in colours is an exercise in admiration.