Because I’m writing this for “here” as opposed to “over there” in the world of comics criticism, I’ll let you in on a secret: no one can agree on what defines a comic. No one. Is it the words/pictures dynamic? Or is it really just pictures-in-sequence, because, come on, what takes up most of the page? “But what about the page?” someone will scream. (Maybe you’ve had the misfortune of being caught in such a conversation, and if so, sorry.) The debate can be tiring and unproductive, not unlike endlessly cranking a well handle only to never see the bucket. Or water.
Blexbolex’s No Man’s Land is not likely to settle this debate anytime soon. It’s a book with pictures and words—glorious, darkly humorous, silkscreened pictures in three-spot color, and words that seem to have been written by Dashiell Hammett after he pledged allegiance to Andre Breton. The book’s publisher, Nobrow Press, lists it under “comics” and calls it a graphic novel, but is it either? Is it an illustrated novella with a dash of poetic, episodic leaping? The images take up four-fifths of each page and the words are situated in the bottom fifth, visually subordinate but vital to what narrative exists in No Man’s Land. Usually the images reinforce or augment what the words say, and occasionally add something completely new. But where are the panels of a comic? What of the panopticon of the page?
Let’s not get bogged down, then. Formally, No Man’s Land is an object which combines various genotypes, authored by a man whose career has done the same. Usually described simply as an illustrator, and probably better known for his children’s books—this year’s Ballad has just made the New York Times Best Illustrated Children’s Book Award list—Blexbolex is known for his ligne claire style, abstraction of the human figure, vibrant color, and impeccable book design and print technique. Thanks to Nobrow, we in the States are becoming more familiar with the French author’s writing for adults, which began with the graphic novel Bad boy boogie in 2000.
No Man’s Land picks up where the 2010 short comic Dog Crime left off: Blexbolex’s nameless protagonist shoots himself twice in the head as self-inflicted punishment. For what? Well, if I understood it correctly, and there’s a good chance I didn’t, Dog Crime suggests that the narrator was framed for murdering a dog in a world which reveres them, and executes himself anyway. Opening at this moment, No Man’s Land doubles down on the clichéd conceit of one’s life flashing before one’s eyes, throwing in a twist or two. Instead of passively witnessing the parade of his life, the red-bodied narrator struggles to escape death by vaulting from one surreal scenario to the next. Trying to summarize the episodic plot seems fruitless if not impossible, but let me say this: instead of a biographical return-to-innocence like Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain”—”they is, they is”!—the plot of No Man’s Land leads us on a nightmarish search for the true nature of the narrator’s self and the conspiracy which has entangled him, as if the answer to either will stave off death.
The ingenuity of the book’s conceit may be that those final revelations flatten out into a confusing mush, unsatisfying only if you hoped they would be firm. (I did, for a while at least.) There are no easy answers here, and maybe the book would have been better off skipping the pretense of providing them. Least intriguing is the torrent of vague insinuations about mega-corporations, banks, capitalism and media—not because these aren’t deserving targets, but because they’re so limply deployed. At best, they’re tangentially attached to the meatier part of the conspiracy, an attempt by “concerned parties to seal the world in an eternal and immutable story; one so big and so complex that no-one could ever know it in its entirety.” This testimony, delivered textually by a vengeful Puss in Boots under a flashback image which includes a multi-eyed, villainous glob, has some real teeth to it, but No Man’s Land never really develops the concept.
What matters more is the narrator’s interior journey through various circles of hell and his growing awareness of his own duplicity. All this time, it turns out, he’s been a double agent. Worse for him, apparently he did kill that dog. “With passion,” he remembers, “because it’s not fair—for God’s sake—not fair to be that innocent!” He goes on to deliver a somewhat poignant soliloquy:
And what I think I know about my life, about my position, of the living advertisement that I am because of my job, financial agreements and social addiction, shatters into pieces which divide time into hours of indecisiveness, minutes of the unbelievable trial that I’m attempting to hold against myself.
My guess is that all of this speaks to a contemporary and apolitical anxiety about what shapes our identity without us knowing—but that feels like a reach. The story is so insular and awash in metaphor that its solipsism drowns the political. “It’s about a guy trying to avoid his death,” I hear you saying, “why shouldn’t it be solipsistic?” I suppose because we all die.
There’s no denying that anxiety drips from the askew body of the narrator, who always seems to be rushing ahead or cowering, and from the heat of an apartment fire, a submarine interior, and a hellish jungle, thanks to Blexbolex’s serpentine, primal line work and skillfully messy use of three-spot color. An artist limiting himself to olive green, navy blue, and blood red is akin to a prose writer using only short declarative sentences. It’s a risk. For the most part it works, and at times the pleasure of reading the images relieves the overwrought adolescence of the prose.
Blexbolex’s writing, or its translation, excels when it’s visceral and precise: early in the book, the narrator describes “… one of those formless days, still buried under the ashes of the night before, and with a stench of death about it.” Elsewhere the writing barely clings to the rails. Take the extended, shaky passage quoted above. How is he an advertisement because of his job? What social addictions? (I suppose we find out two pages later when the protagonist is being whipped by a dominatrix; in this book, women are literally either sex workers or goddesses.) As much as that sentence wanders, it’s also some of the book’s finest writing, recalling other, better parodists of American culture like Italo Calvino or Haruki Murakami.
It would be unfair to say the prose is an afterthought, but our eye is drawn to the images for a reason. Nobrow’s press materials argue that Blexbolex’s style recalls the natural fluidity of Matisse, but except for the decorative elements similar to what you might see in Landscape at Colliourre or Blue Nude, I’m not convinced. The silkscreen overlays and limited palette in No Man’s Land create a more complicated and severe world, one that combines Matisse’s Fauvism with surrealism’s severity and the shock value of 1930s WPA posters, which is to say a bit of Expressionism. Each of Blexbolex’s pages demands that you linger and interrogate, be it a simple landscape or the narrator’s frenetic duel with what might be an anaconda. The sense which might be made of these images is always leavened, even trumped, by their surprising, powerful intricacy.
Indeed, one of the most pleasurable tensions of the book arises from the clashing of its parts. Since text and image are divided so sharply from each other on the space of the page, the reader is encouraged to contemplate at her own pace, the eye moving from word to image and back. In a sense, that’s how all comics work—here we go again—but the argument about the distinction between picture books and comics rests on this sharp spatial division. The matter at hand, though, is how this urge to linger is tested by the breathless profluence of Blexbolex’s story. No Man’s Land is not a seamless marriage of picture and word, but rather a testy romance. And not without reason. In yet another nuptial, this time of form and content, the reader’s contemplation mirrors the narrator’s searching—if only it could go on forever!—and the authorial push forward stands in for the inevitable ending of life. In this interstitial space, living just to survive, the title of No Man’s Land alludes to not only the book’s place in the art world, or the trench warfare of World War I depicted horrifyingly midway through the story (to what end I have no idea), but also, slyly, to narrative’s resistance to and inexorable drive toward conclusions.
I think it only fair that a critic interrogate himself as much as the work he’s reviewing, and so I ought to admit that conclusions have been on my mind a lot lately. At the moment I’m nursing my thirteen year-old dog through what will be the final months of her life thanks to the indignity that is bladder cancer. On dry, cold nights I find myself encouraging her bowel movements, which have become difficult due to the pressure put upon her by the tumor. Death is made of hard, cruel stuff. So maybe it’s inevitable that for me, for now, No Man’s Land reads as an indulgence, a bourgeois acid trip during Gallery Hop. It’s not the dog-killing incident, because, frankly, it’s hard to take seriously the way it’s presented. Simply put, when the oddity of its narrative wears off, No Man’s Land slides away with it, into a self-conscious artifying that risks little in its telling and better suits formalist debates about what is and is not a comic.
For now. That’s what art provides us: a suspension, a no man’s land to which we can return like nothing else in our lives. For now the failing could be all mine, and maybe I’ll come back to No Man’s Land in a year and everything will seem different. For now, though, it’s not my book, but it could be yours.
No Man’s Land, by Blexbolex. Nobrow Press. 140 pages. $21.95, hardcover.
Robert Loss is a visiting full-time faculty member at Columbus College of Art and Design where he teaches writing and literature. His short stories and critical writing have appeared in numerous print and online journals, including Mayday, Ghettoblaster, and PopMatters, where he writes a column titled “Ties That Bind.” He serves as the programming coordinator for the Mix Comics Symposium which featured cartoonists Jeff Smith and Carol Tyler in 2013.