House of the Black Spot, by Ben Sears. Toronto, Ontario: Koyama Press, May 2019. 80 pages. $12.00, paper.
House of the Black Spot is the latest in Ben Sears’s Double+ graphic novel series. This is my first experience with Sears’ work, yet the world he imagines leaves an instant impact. In Bolt City, where much of the book’s early action takes place, there are streets lined with vibrantly-colored buildings and hovering robots capable of autonomous thought, but old ladies are still worried about paying their rent.
Sears’ environments, first Bolt City and then Gear Town, both in name and in construction, celebrate industrialization for industrialization’s sake. Everything in Bolt City and Gear Town is growing, becoming sleeker and more expensive, but there is no clear benefit to anyone.
At Bolt City Airport our main characters, Plus Man and Hank, are hopping on a plane to Gear Town. The planes have a sleek, minimalistic paint job. Their design is in line with the city’s boxy, industrial-chic vibe. But for all of the thought put into the exterior, there is nothing special about the plane’s interior or the flying experience. Our characters pile into cramped seats. They worry about the gassiness of their neighbor, the possibility of crashing, and, perhaps worse, the likelihood of the one and only bathroom going out of order.
Sears’ environments are super stylized, but the conflict of House of the Black Spot feels hauntingly familiar. Some might say that Sears warns us in House of the Black Spot of the danger of unchecked urban sprawl and gentrification. But to do that, Sears would need to take a time machine and write this book many years ago. The conversations about eviction notices and new luxury apartments we see in Bolt City and Gear Town are identical to conversations overheard today in New Orleans or Portland, Oregon. What Sears is giving us, instead, is a visually-stimulating mirror in which we see our current predicament.
Plus Man and Hank take a taxi into the heart of Gear Town. The driver points out a brand-new golf course downtown. She reminds Plus Man and Hank that no one in Gear Town actually plays golf. Our first impression of Gear Town is a city built for people who do not currently reside there.
A Gear Town citizen named Mel tells our main characters she wishes everything could just feel normal, whatever “normal” now means. This aside reminds us that while we can fight against gentrification, we cannot entirely reverse the damage it has done. Once a community is driven out of a city due to hikes in the cost of living and other factors, the place can never return to a carbon copy of what it was before. Many families will put down stakes in new communities, the new residents and businesses of the gentrified area will leave a footprint (both for better and worse), and the cost of living is unlikely to ever dip back to pre-gentrification levels.
But just as we start exploring these issues surrounding gentrification, House of the Black Spot transforms into a murder mystery. Someone has killed one of Gear Town’s most beloved citizens. Plus Man and Hank, along with their new friend Mel, must investigate. The most likely culprits are two greedy businessmen and one greedy businessrobot, who stood to gain valuable real estate in the case of the victim’s untimely death.
Isolating the two greedy businessmen and one greedy businessrobot could be a compelling study of a rich person’s psyche. However, in a murder mystery, those accused of the crime have every reason to keep their guard up. If written the wrong way, characters in a murder mystery appear underdeveloped. The two greedy businessmen and the one greedy businessrobot do not have a particularly good reason to open up to anyone in House of the Black Spot. Therefore, the graphic novel’s study of gentrification and, sadly, much of its character development comes to a grinding halt once the mystery begins.
Reviews by the AV Club of previous Double+ books point out that these graphic novels are meant for readers of all ages, including children. Because of his wide-ranging audience, Sears may have felt that a full-on trial of gentrification was not appropriate. In fact, for a graphic novel accessible to both children and young adults to tackle gentrification in any capacity is quite ambitious.
Also, it must be said that House of the Black Spot has a really good heart. Plus Man and Hank genuinely care whether or not an old lady can afford her rent. They really want to solve the murder mystery and, even in the throes of said murder mystery, they worry about how their cat will get fed. That spirit, in and of itself, is commendable and worth praise.
James Ardis is the author of Your Arkansas: A Strategy Guide (Gauss PDF, 2016), a project that combines psychosis and video game strategy guides. His writing has most recently appeared in FreezeRay, Devil’s Lake, and Leveler. His most recent criticism is available at The Collagist, Entropy, and The Rumpus. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.