Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Review time! with ‘The Hand of Black’

“Now my bitter hands cradle broken glass of what was everything”

The Hand of Black is a collection of short stories by Martin Cendreda, which is published by F.U. Press, an imprint of Fantagraphics.

I hate not liking comics, especially indie ones that aren’t just mass-produced superhero books (those I have no problem hating if they suck), but I just can’t get into The Hand of Black. It’s frustrating – Cendreda obviously has talent, both as a storyteller and artist, but for some reason, these stories just don’t do it for me. It’s not the fact that they’re almost completely wordless – there is no speech and no narration, and the few words are written on signs or pieces of paper. That is part of it, but not the only reason. The lack of words means that the characters remain largely ciphers, with vague motivations and excessive reactions, due to Cendreda needing to have them wear their emotions on their sleeves, visually. So some of the subtlety of the stories is lost because we never get anything written to assist the art. Cendreda has a decent but cartoony style, so his faces are relatively abstract, meaning their emotions are blunt and un-nuanced, and when he decides to not show their emotions, they become blank canvases. It’s frustrating, because there are moments that demand explanation (not many, but some) and the lack makes the stories less powerful. For the most part, we don’t need words in these stories, but when we do, their absence feels crucial, and the some of the stories don’t work as well as they might if they had a few (just a few!) words.

The stories are all a bit surreal tinged with horror, which should be right up my alley. In the first, a man goes fishing and sees a woman wearing mourning clothes dumping what appears to be bodies into the ocean, so he follows her, much to his regret once he finds out what’s going on. In the second, a man kills a bunch of people and steals their food because he’s so hungry, and that doesn’t end well for him. The title story is the most frustrating one due to the lack of words, because it’s the most ambitious one. A woman cuts her finger while gardening and somehow infects the soil with … evil? She passes that on to her son, whose black hand causes him nothing but trouble in life. Cendreda tries to achieve a lot in this story, and he doesn’t quite nail it, and to me, it seems like the one that could benefit the most from some more explanation. In the next story, a man discovers a magic magic marker, one that lets him write things on a T-shirt that causes people who read the shirt to follow its instructions. It’s an odd, mean-spirited little tale. The next story gives us a man whose reflection in a mirror has a mind of its own, which drives the man mad. In a similar story, a man in an office discovers that there’s a nasty spirit inside the copier, and he goes crazy trying to figure what it wants. This is the best story, because it’s the one that least relies on words (although it also has the most words in it, as the copier spits out paper with stuff written on it). Finally, the second-best story is the last one, in which a demon in the form of a child is thwarted by the only thing that can see it – a dog.

The stories are strange and occasionally very clever, as Cendreda does manage to make some interesting comments about society. The main theme seems to be a detachment from “normal” society for the characters, as they are driven mad by the drudgery of office work or the life they don’t have or the isolation they feel. There’s an undercurrent of disgust with the way we live now, as the characters don’t have any connections or, if they do, the connections are poisoned. It’s not a bad thing to comment on, and perhaps Cendreda felt the lack of words would heighten that disconnect, as it’s hard to feel any connection to the characters themselves, which ties back into the theme. But that still leaves us frustrated, because the ambiguity of the situations is still that, a vagueness that makes it hard to enjoy the book even if we recognize the effect Cendreda is (or might be) going for.

His art, beyond the lack of facial expressiveness, is perfectly fine. There’s not a lot to say about it – he uses an interesting red-tinged palette, which accentuates the bizarre nature of the stories, as they look like fever dreams. Most of the time, we can “read” what’s going on perfectly well, but occasionally, the lack of detail becomes a problem, and with no words backing it up, the art has to do a lot of heavy lifting and it’s not always up to that. Still, Cendreda is a good artist, and in general, we can tell what’s going on. It’s in the margins where the art breaks down, and there’s nothing there to prop it up.

As I noted, I’m bummed I didn’t like this more. It’s a weird, occasionally brilliant book that, overall, feels like a letdown because Cendreda doesn’t quite trust either his words or art, so he abandons one but can’t make up for it with the other. Some of the stories are nifty, and overall, the book isn’t a disaster, but there’s a sense of a missed opportunity here, as well.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

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