The Black Forest Offers Tight Focus as an Anthology / by Alec Berry

I’m always intrigued when individual people, separated by lifestyles, names and physical distance, can come to a similar conclusion about a specific event,  artwork or place. There’s something optimistic about the occurrence, suggesting that past the attributes of class, upbringing and education we’re all human, tapped into something similar at our core. Or that we all can at least meet at specific points, plowing past the rhetoric of classic politics.

The Black Forest, an anthology of art, folk tales and comics, explores that bond to some degree, only it’s not entirely chipper and warm. Instead, The Black Forest acts more as a group therapy session. It’s a book in which its contributors have all come together to exercise the demons they possess, or work through some clouded thought, as well as assess the state of the region they call home. Pittsburgh, PA.

Not 100% of the book’s contents are comics. Much of it includes still paintings, poetry, prose and even Venn diagrams that say ... well ... things, but the book well represents the medium this website chooses to spotlight, especially since Pittsburgh is somewhat of a newly discovered mecca for sequential activity.

As a complete work, I feel The Black Forest ties together nicely to communicate its larger concept – triumph over darkness -, and it certainly fulfills its mission of spotlighting alternative talent. So on that level, as an anthology, I have to rate The Black Forest highly. The book possesses a clear focus of what it wants to be and achieves its goal by knitting the individual artworks together to create a larger statement. Even though every work may not click with me, I can recognize each and everyone’s place in the book.

But what’s also just as important is whether or not the individual works can stand on their own feet, away from the anthology. For a few works, this is clearly the case.

Specific comics such as Bill Wehmann’s “Nature Friends Tourist Club,” Ally Reeves’ “Better Luck and Love in the Almacantar” and Tiberiu Chelcea’s “Interrupted Trip” stand out in the reading experience.  “Interrupted Trip” especially with its stark, abrupt imagery. In fact, I’d call it the visual highlight of the entire book.

Chelcea says so much about Pittsburgh in “Interrupted Trip” that I believe his statement goes beyond the city to comment on industrialization as a whole. His piece uses  negative space as well as uncompromised imagery to give off its affect. While the entire thing could be considered a collection of paintings, what Chelcea really creates is a short comic book narrative. The reader only needs to turn the pages and make the connections between the paintings. The choice to convey in this particular fashion only adds to the abrasive tone implied.

The colors as well as a motif of a window grid also effect the tone and imply a sense of imprisonment. As a reader,  you’re subjected to gaze out through these tiny, ill-lit windows in order to catch a glimpse of the outside world. What you see isn’t exactly wonderful, though. Instead, you witness the run down mills and warehouses left behind by Industry, and all of it lies painted in a grey fog.

“Interrupted Trip” is Chelcea saying, “look, we’ve caged ourselves off from the world.”

“We’ve buried it all under our trash.”

But while Chelcea’s story at first suggests we’ve thrown it all away, it later speaks up and says, “we can reclaim it.” I think that’s where The Black Forest says its most interesting stuff.

Because it’s almost too easy to be depressed and say, “hell with it.” We do so in our everyday lives without much thought because we’re so ready to give up. The dark, the depraved ... those are easy stories to tell.

But a challenge lies in communicating that sense of “wanting to go back,” and I feel The Black Forest does so pretty well.

The inclusion of Joey Kennedy’s “Funland,” a sampling of still photography depicting fixed up pinball machines, works as a nice addition in the “wanting to go back” department. Pinball, a past time of days gone by, is only a great metaphor for nostalgia, but it’s the context that these machines have been fixed up and repainted that suggests the idea of “triumph” The Black Forest spells out.

Although, if the truth be told, you really can’t “go back” to the exact thing you know and experienced, and that’s what Bill Wehmann’s  comic “Nature Friends Tourist Club” gets to the bottom of, suggesting that even if you go back a change will exist.

If there were one critique I’d offer, I think The Black Forest can at times get a little caught up in its experimental side. While I’m sure I’m just an idiot and don’t get it, I feel the book spotlights a few works that really just come off as “arty” and impenetrable without really saying anything brilliant. I feel I’m just expected to think these specific works are brilliant because they are “arty.” While it’s wonderful to be challenged, there is something to be said for communicating a grand idea in a digest able fashion.

Overall, The Black Forest offers a collection of challenging work that you will easily spend worthwhile time with. As an anthology, it suggests a concise, overall point, and the stories inside work just as well on their own. It’s very much a cathartic piece of literature in which you can witness the collective unconscious at work as separate artists come together to speak about a singular thought.

TL;DR The Black Forest offers a wide collection of neo-folk tales and alternative art that is sure to challenge a reader. The book works well on the whole as an anthology, and it suggests a sense of triumph over darkness.

The Black Forest was produced by Pittsburg art collective Unicorn Mountain and published in part by Six Gallery Press (distributed through Small Press Distribution). You can buy a copy through the Unicorn Mountain website. You can also find a few copies on Amazon, which you can access through our web store.

A review copy of The Black Forest was graciously provided to Spandexless by Unicorn Mountain.