Stygian Imagery: Black Church

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As fans, we don’t spend enough time giving credit to the artists who play such an integral role in developing the imagery that plays such an important role in making metal the immersive experience that it is. Certain bands and festivals do a great job of promoting the visual artists they work with — Roadburn’s featured poster artists and Mastodon’s Skinner-directed video for “Asleep in the Deep” come to mind — but all too often we’re left with a tough task when it comes to tracking down visual artists working in the metal world. This was demonstrated to me recently when I came across some especially delightful artwork for The Sword. Take a moment to bask in this:

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Through the magic of image search, I discovered this illustration was created by Andy Belanger, a Canada-based artist whose work I was actually already familiar with due to his work in comics. In fact, I own and had posted about my delight in his 2012 mini-comic tribute to heavy metal aesthetics, Black Church.

Mini-comics can be the cruelest of mistresses. This single-serving, independently-produced format allows comics creators full control over their vision, and a whole lot of effort goes into the production of each slim volume, meaning that the end product is richly satisfying but often all too brief. Black Church provides exactly this experience, packing a whole lot of violence, sex, and Satan into its 36 pages. The comic’s link to metal isn’t explicit, but the genre’s stamp is clear throughout. The limited-edition book is even cut to the same size as a 45 RPM record, complete with presentation in a card stock sleeve.

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Set in a semi-historical milieu that evokes the Hyborian Age inhabited by Conan the Barbarian, the war-torn region in the Carpathian mountains is on the verge of an apocalyptic event. A hugely-muscled Vlad Tsepes, his brother, and a woman accused of witchcraft escape from the clutches of Ottoman captors. Elsewhere in Wallachia, the current king has visions of a child possessing startling powers. It’s the set-up for an epic occult event, adding a healthy dose of heavy psychedelia to the fantasy formula.

The Vlad Tsepes of this comic feels like a tribute to Robert E. Howard’s legendary Conan character. Where some would classify Conan as a “noble savage” serving as an exemplar of strength and purity of mind, that’s not entirely accurate. The character is often a brigand and frequently behaves more like a manifestation of Id than a pure-of-heart man of nature. Similarly, the Vlad of Black Church is a bear-punching, babe-fucking force of destruction who also happens to be alienated from polite society.

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Belanger’s art is energetic and beautiful, even during gruesome moments. Crisp black and white inking given moody depth with halftones. Some of my favorite moments in Black Church are the quietest, like the sound effects that emerge from the horses’ hooves as they walk in the snow. His character design is dramatic yet appealing, with naturalistic figures sharing space with heroic ones. Every design choice complements the blending of historical and fantastical in the story. There’s an unmistakable bombast and pace to Black Church that evokes the bigness and loudness of metal in every line.

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Now here’s where I get to the point of writing up a four-year-old mini-comic. The 2012 limited edition, self-published print run of this book is long gone, but in interviews as late as 2015, Belanger discussed continuing the project. Now, the author and artist has been quite busy on other worthy projects, most recently bringing to life Image Comics’ space mystery series Southern Cross, which includes truly excellent storytelling and artwork. Selfishly, though, I’m holding out hope that Belanger returns to th brutal, bizarre world of sex and sorcery that he so tantalizingly began with the Black Church mini-comic.

— Tenebrous Kate

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