As befits a comic that mostly takes place in a rowboat going nowhere in the middle of the ocean, Black Is the Color frequently collapses time and space into one another. Often its two-panel rows, or indeed entire pages, will depict a contiguous space split between the panels, the passage of time conveyed by the movement of your eye from one panel to the next within that space. Clouds drift and morph; a lonely cabin looks out over the sea; a storm descends over multiple pages, dwarfing a lone doomed ship; merfolk make idle chatter while watching men burn and drown; a mermaid descends through fronds of seaweed after leaving her dying lover to the daylight. Cartoonist Julia Gfrörer deploys a battery of tricks to get it all done—a skillful use of tangent lines; visual echoes between sea and clouds, hair and flora; clever perspectival shifts in the bottom rows of some of these six-panel pages, creating the illusion of great depth of field within the larger page; enough hatching in the bravura storm sequence to create a level of visual noise that would do a hybrid of Brian Chippendale and Tony Millionaire proud—but the overall effect remains the same: Set adrift so that his crewmates can survive off his share of their meager provisions, an unfortunate sailor called Warren is trapped in a long dying moment.
Indeed, the central tension of the comic is that despite her physical and emotional advances on the man, Eulalia, the mermaid who visits and beguiles Warren, does nothing to try to pry him loose from that moment. Her eyes black orbs, her breast milk a black ichor, she kisses him, holds him, alternately taunts and comforts him, but ultimately allows his fate to unfold just as it would had he never met her at all. The merfolk we encounter banter about their vaguely avant-garde music projects (“It’s still basically noise but with dance beats”) and make sex jokes (“These young guys probably wouldn’t even know where to put it.” “Well, to be fair … probably none of them would know where to put it”) while, yards away or above, people die. They appear to understand the facts of human death, but see it as something in which they feel no compunction to intervene, any more than we would attempt to wall off anthills from rivulets of hot soapy water when someone’s washing their car. Only Warren’s spectral visit to his wife back home on the night of his death, and the salty black traces of himself his spectre leaves behind after they have sex one last time, provides any evidence of his encounter with the preternatural that can be observed outside the boat and the depths beneath — a world hermetically sealed by vastness and isolation, and a yawning gulf of understanding between everyday forces and the forces beyond them.
But the tenderness between Eulalia and Warren is nevertheless real in that moment. You don’t even have to take the dialogue’s word for it — Eulalia’s canny ability to be direct or withdrawn depending on the emotional needs of the moment, say, or her mothering comfort when Warren cries, or her repetitive “oh no no no no no” when the inevitable finally arrives. No, just watch their fingers flex and grip and intertwine as they hold hands, passing the time by recalling Warren’s one-time dalliances with a crewmate. (By this point we’ve sussed out that they’re maybe not so one-time, but that’s as may be.) The connection is, to them, literally palpable. If the only transcendence on offer here is a black transcendence, a liberation from the physical plane by a massive school of tiny black fish that devour and disperse in the comic’s knockout final image, that doesn’t make that connection any less valuable — just valuable in a different way. Gfrörer’s most moving comic to date, Black Is the Color eroticizes suffering not to glamorize it, but to endure it. We’re adrift; what other choice do we have?