Black History Month Comics: Crescent City Monsters by Newton Lilavois and Gian Carlo Bernal

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It’s 1960s New Orleans and a black sorcerer that plays the Blues is about to find out there’s a price on his head. This is the basic premise of Crescent City Monsters, by Haitian comic book writer Newton Lilavois and Filipino illustrator Gian Carlo Bernal. Underneath that premise, though, is a story about living in a constant state of threat, be it real or magical.

The story follows Jonas Alexandre Atelus, a practitioner of Creole magic. In a quick bit of backstory, we are told his mother once found him soundly asleep in his crib, surrounded by snakes. Lilavois and Bernal position themselves as master world-builders with this book. Jonas traverses a dark and shadowy New Orleans that gives the city an ancient and haunted feel. Each road, each bar, each corner is shown on its bad side. The city is an angry entity and its characters have to be painfully aware of it in order to make a life there.

Crescent City Monsters anchors its horror in Southern legends and voodoo lore. Jonas’ powers are manifested in the form of snakes, representatives of Damballa, the great loa, creator of all life. This opens the flood gates for a whole lot of scary things to come out and play while also welcoming a pantheon of black gods to manifest themselves in New Orleans’ spirit world.

Additionally, one of the creatures Jonas meets in the comic hails from a legend said to have originated in East New Orleans. It’s known as The Grunch, a kind of dwarf that feeds on magical pests. This all shows an interest in creating a very culturally-aware sense of story that celebrates not only the area’s myths and legends but also its wonderfully tangled roots.

Lilavois and Bernal do not look to myth as a source of standard horror or cool creature designs. Everything has a purpose and it is presented organically. There’s a great scene where Jonas is confronted by a racist cop eager for a bit of violence only to see the gesture returned by coughing up a ball of snakes on the ground. The scene is visceral but not gratuitous. It lays out the rules of the game in the comic’s version of New Orleans, its magic, and its power struggles. Here, magic beats racism.

I am a fan of Crescent City Monsters. The comic has been circulating in smaller comic conventions and festivals, such as the Schomburg’s Black Comic Book Festival and the BAM’s Black Comics Expo. It can also be found as a webcomic at the Dream Fury Comics website. Be on the lookout for this comic series. Jaw-dropping art, writing that respects its diverse source material, and high-caliber black horror madness. This comic deserves to be read.