When you get down to it, America essentially willed itself into being a global superpower by hyping up and commodifying the collective dream of America. The Industrial Revolution saw rogues and con artists and thieves rebrand themselves as entrepreneurs, who sold their fellow Americans and the world at large on the idea of themselves as dream fulfillers as much as they sold them their various products. And this has never really gone away– take a look at the gig economy and the way brands like Lyft and Uber and Fiverr encourage their contractors to work themselves to death by making them believe the gig economy is the ultimate freedom dream and not a con designed around making new generations high tech serfs. This is basically the view of America Jason Latour, Ivan Brandon and Greg Hinkle examine and expand on in their new series Black Cloud, concocting a world where a disruptor finds a way to actually sell dreams to anyone with enough disposal income, not through an app but through technology’s immortal twin, magic.
Naturally, one of Black Cloud’s dominant themes is the oversaturation of entertainment and how that has led to people seeking out any new thrill that can break through the monotony of content. In its opening pages, Black Cloud juxtaposes the stories of old, with their monsters and darkness and morals and novelty, and the stories we tell ourselves about our everyday lives, attempting to liven up the drudgery of lives filled with work and travel to and from work. It’s a standard contrast, complete with the expected shift in color from sepia earth tones to Matt Wilson’s more recognizable vivid blues and purples. Latour and Brandon walk that line between the old and new throughout the debut issue, making it sometimes difficult to discern how intentional the over reliance on cliche is. And even when it’s clear that aspects are intentional commentary on cliche, it nonetheless often feels stiff and flat.
This is a problem Black Cloud shares with a number of current Image series, particularly as it clumsily navigates its first half, seemingly unsure of how to properly introduce readers to the scope of its world. But it’s especially unfortunate in a story about stories, where form and structure are as important as narrative points. Black Cloud’s worst element is the habit protagonist and dream guide, Zelda, has of dryly narrating everything that’s going on. Much of that internal dialogue is exposition but huge chunks of it are character building elements that are better communicated through Hinkle’s art. It’s a shame that Hinkle’s expressive, emotionally rich storytelling is hampered by countless caption boxes and unnecessary dialogue because if you were to remove that clutter, Black Cloud would be a much more efficient and moving debut.
You can see this when the writers step back and give Hinkle and Wilson more room to tell the story visually, particularly in the first dream sequence showcasing Zelda’s mastery of the dream realm, a hybrid of Inception’s reality twisting lucid dreaming and Neverwhere’s fairy tale vividness. That scene efficiently communicates Zelda’s con– pitch her brand of lucid dreaming to rich kids as the ultimate drug trip– and provides a glimpse at her ability as she shifts another creature’s dream world to better fit her needs and the desires of her mark. And while the trick of suddenly infusing a black and white dream sequence with color is pretty old hat at this point, Wilson does a wonderful job making it the ultimate expression of that, with the colors avoiding the standard pastel palette in favor of a luxurious, shimmering richness, lie day-glo precious jewels.
Likewise, the elements of the story that are teased rather than made explicit show that the series has immense potential. Despite all her exposition and internal monologuing, Zelda remains a mostly mysterious character, particularly in regards to her past. Black Cloud comes from the Neil Gaiman realm of magic, so Zelda is seemingly down on her luck, homeless and exhausted, and the other figures of the dream world are alternately terrified of and annoyed with her. But Zelda is also cocky and reckless, violating the rules of the dream realm with little thought for the repercussions, seemingly only afraid of a powerful force that makes its presence known with torrential downpours. There’s no doubt that will come back to bite Zelda in the ass, the question is just how badly will it impact the rest of the world.
And yet it’s hard not to root for Zelda anyway, since her con is mostly built around taking money from rich kids without concern for what danger she might be placing them in by dropping them in a dream realm that clearly has all kinds of monsters lurking within it. It’s not the most subtle commentary on the allure and risk of the American dream, but it is a welcome twist on it, and not just because it drops Inception’s white collar aesthetic in favor of fairy tale slumming. If the creative team can better focus that aspect of the story, and avoid the dry internal monologuing and exposition that weighs down Zelda as a character, Black Cloud could blossom into a fresh and vibrant political fantasy. At its best, Black Cloud teases a version of the American dream where the poor and disenfranchised can make the rich pay them handsomely and disappear into a bizarre, dangerous world at the same time. What’s not to love about that?
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover