The Black Diamond is an eight-lane superhighway elevated 150 feet above the ground, running straight across an America of the near future. There are no laws on The Black Diamond. This is the roadway for anyone who doesn’t belong in polite society. It is across this chaotic backdrop of criminals, rebels, and reckless drivers that Doctor Don McLaughlin must tear through to get to his wife, who is caught between kidnappers and the U.S. Army. Don is nobody special, just a dentist, but he does have a sweet ride.
That is the set up of Larry Young’s The Black Diamond. As far as high-concept premises go, this is pure, raw coolness. Anyone who doesn’t think that this sounds like a cool story is someone who doesn’t understand what the word “cool” is supposed to mean. The promise of The Black Diamond is the promise of barely contained chaos, of breakneck chases, of a world where speed is the only virtue. It promised to be Bullitt times Vanishing Point times Escape from New York. Sadly, the book just does not deliver on this promise giving us a script that is unfocused and art that is incomprehensible.
Young seems to have rejected the notion that a story about a lawless highway should be jam-packed with chases and crashes, preferring to fill the story with slow exposition and stilted political commentary. This story, about a man on a high-speed journey across his country, does not actually get around to showing a scene depicting the act of a car being driven until the third issue.
The story is frustratingly slow. The first five pages of The Black Diamond feature two characters playing a trivia game. This scene does nothing to establish the setting, or the characters. In fact, these characters aren’t even important enough to have names, and never resurface after the initial scene. It is just mildly interesting dialogue, adding nothing to the story. Amazingly, this is followed up in the second issue by an equally dead-weight scene where characters work on solving a crossword puzzle.
Once the action finally starts in the third issue, the problems of the script become dwarfed by the problems of the art. Car chases have always been difficult subject matter for comics. A chase is, after all, about motion, and comic books are sequences of isolated moments. To tell a car-chase story, an artist with a knack for conveying the illusion of motion is required. Unfortunately, this book’s artist, Jon Proctor, is spectacularly bad at it, a fact that becomes apparent as soon as elements of action are finally introduced to the story. His art simply cannot convey narrative events, which is of course, the whole point of a comic book. In The Black Diamond, there are pictures, and things are happening in the pictures, but it isn’t at all clear what is going on.
Apparently the book’s editor realized that the action was impossible to follow, because the action-intensive issues include a copy of the issue’s script in the back. Without that script, these issues are little more than random pictures of cars blowing up. The problem is so pronounced, that the final scene of the story takes the extraordinary step of actually superimposing the script over top of the art.
Even without this bizarre juxtaposition, that final scene is just absurd. Having haphazardly built toward a violent confrontation between the Army and the gear heads, the sort that can only end in tragedy, it appears that the author has written himself into a corner. The resolution, such as it is, amounts to nothing more than a weak, metatexual pun. Roll credits. It was less like a car chase, more like a train wreck.
So, The Black Diamond is a sloppy, poorly paced story told by indecipherable art. Clearly the book is garbage, no? Well, maybe so, but despite the book’s myriad flaws, I can help but love it a little. In part, that’s due to the slam-bang brilliant premise. The concept of The Black Diamond makes me very happy, even if the story largely failed to deliver the goods.
Past that, I truly love the sense of style that went into this book. While the art is uneven and it spectacularly fails at telling a story, it does a great job of creating a deliciously moody atmosphere. The book is peppered with dozens of big spreads, full of gorgeous imagery of the road. Although frustratingly uneven, with much of the art resembling badly-traced photography, some pages are stunningly composed pictures evoking a ‘70s grindhouse sensibility. Throughout it all, Proctor gives us one of the best color palettes I’ve ever seen in a comic, all washed-out reds and yellows.
Fleshing out the stylish package, each issue has a backup feature by a different creative team, and while none of these are particularly good, neither are any of them bad. These stories all add color and depth to the world of The Black Diamond. Also, the covers are simply awesome, a masterpiece of graphic design.
The large doses of style and cool in this package make the book a neat artifact, despite the crap story. You don’t read The Black Diamond so much as you soak in its atmosphere. That is almost enough for me to forgive the book for failing to be the full-on action story it should have been.