Review by Ben Kooyman
The australiancomicsjournal.com takes a look at some uniquely dramatic Australian storytelling – soap opera and Western – with Hayden Fryer’s Darkest Knight and Cobber…
Writer-illustrator Hayden Fryer’s Darkest Night is worth reading if only because, as a small-scale small-town drama about a tragic love triangle, there’s nothing else quite like it on the Australian comics market. But on top of its anomalous status, it also happens to be a very good piece of storytelling.
Subtitled “A tale of love, death and revenge”, the story begins with the breakup, via text message, of Carlie and Caleb. Over three issues, Fryer charts the emotional fallout of this breakup and its effects on Caleb, who is mourning the recent death of his parents, and Carlie, who meets and begins a new romance with Grant (whose surname is one of the few things that irked me about the series).
There is a soap operatic dimension to Darkest Night, but I don’t mean that in the derogatory sense. This is soap opera in the best sense, i.e. more along the lines of Jimmy McGovern’s The Lakes or Russell T. Davies’ Queer as Folk rather than, say, Home and Away. Which is to say, it’s a soap opera where the heightened, heated, pulpy, arch quality is also invested and resonates with an authentic finish and a palpable anger. It helps that Fryer strips his dialogue down to its mumble-core essentials, largely jettisoning the cheese, apart from some moments where it is strategically deployed. The author also makes interesting and surprising choices with characterisation, particularly in the third and final issue.
Fryer’s work as illustrator complements his work as writer, with his black & white art investing the story with darker hues. Given that the story is a human drama, much of the artwork focuses on human faces in tight close-ups and medium portraits, and Fryer effectively conveys feelings and emotion through his characters’ faces. In addition, there is a touch of Kabuki to their broad, occasionally goofy visages which creates an interesting dissonance with the spartan dialogue. Fryer also demonstrates a knack for visual juxtaposition, as seen in his parallel depiction of Carlie’s romantic ascent with Grant and Caleb’s personal descent following their breakup and his parents’ passing. All told, Darkest Night is well-crafted and fills a niche – straight human drama shorn of fantastical or genre trappings – in local comics.
In contrast to Darkest Night, the first issue of Cobber is more recognisably a “genre” work, though it shares the former’s small-town setting and human drama focus. The story opens with lowlife Eddie Stewart cowering beneath a bar while an apocalyptic, Unforgiven-esque barroom slaughter happens out of sight behind him. From there the story jumps back and forth in time, depicting the murder of a Durham farmer by rising town kingpin Robert Stewart 20 years ago, the Stewart family’s continued grip on the Durham community 20 years later, and the gunslinger’s ominous arrival in town, likely to stir up all manner of trouble.
As suggested earlier, Cobber’s trappings are much more innately archetypal than Darkest Night’s, with touches of The Big Country, the Hatfields & McCoys, Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name, and other Western attributes. But there is also some thematic weight to the tale, which touches on working and lower class struggle, the uneven distribution of wealth, and small town class politics and power dynasties. While the storytelling is not quite as clean as Darkest Night and it took a couple of readings to clarify timeframes and relationships, it is also in fairness a larger, more ambitious story with more players and a deeper history to juggle, as well as backstory yet to be revealed. Ultimately, Cobber #1 is a solid debut issue and a neat local spin on Western tropes, with Fryer setting the stage nicely for future instalments.
Darkest Night: Love is available from http://www.siberianproductions.com
Darkest Night digital release is available through Comixology: http://cmxl.gy/1337DUu
Cobber is available from http://www.siberianproductions.com
Cobber digital release is available through Comixology: https://www.comixology.com/Cobber-1/digital-comic/268717