April 6th, 2016
Or: We are all of us in the shadow of the dicktree – by Kelly Kanayama/Maid of Nails
“Imagine out of all the gigs in town, right? You’re thinking — how hard can it be to stare up at the stars every night for a living?”
Those are the opening lines of Nameless, the most unsettling comic I’ve ever read (including a bit of Crossed, which didn’t unsettle so much as rub garbage all over your soul).
With the introduction of an astronomer who murders his family and scrawls mysterious words on the wall in their blood, we soon find out exactly how hard it can be to stare up at the stars every night. The stars, where J’onn J’onzz made his home, where the guardians of Oa hold court, from which Superman crashed into our world to help us believe a man can fly. Staring up at the stars is an act of hope, and in Nameless, for the most part, there is none.
You think, for instance, that people are dismembering each other with their bare hands, faces smeared with blood and human filth.
The doctors explain it was only a dream; it was all in your head.
What happened outside your head — when you were outside your head — is much worse.
Unlike Morrison’s other recent comics, which tend to pick a driving set of mythological images and stick with them, Nameless draws on the Kabbalah/anti-Kabbalah, Gnosticism, Mayan epic and myths of the underworld, and — a real surprise, because this almost never shows up in Western comics — Pacific Islander myth to create a cosmological tangle to entrap its characters; you can slip the confines of one mythical structure just to fall headlong into another that will hurt you even more.
Much of this is outlined by Morrison in the hardcover, which came out at the end of March. Even if you read the series in single issues, I recommend getting hold of the hardcover because:
- It kind of explains what in the shit was going on plotwise and what some of the references are, from the man himself.
- You get a look into Fairbairn’s coloring process and Hughes’ logo design.
- You also get to see some of Burnham’s original art.
- Ballin’-ass variant covers.
- The greatest artist photo ever. No spoilers. You just have to buy the book.
Speaking of human filth (just a few paragraphs ago, but I don’t want to make readers scroll back up to that picture), this comic feels a bit like Morrison revisiting some of the concepts in The Filth as an older man. I can’t imagine a younger person writing a series as bleak as Nameless; maybe it’s a growing-sense-of-mortality thing, or the sense of youthful optimism dying and being unable to get it back.
We took the shit the world flung at us and, as per instructions, spread it on our flowers. So our flowers bloomed, at least for a while, but we forgot to stem the steady drip of poison leaking into the soil. Our gardens are barren now. We are becoming desperate, and when humans become desperate the harm they can do is almost unbelievable — almost, because it has happened, is happening, so we must believe it.
The series falls a bit flat for me when it gets into the Gnostic god, a higher being that exerts its omnipotence upon us is an entity of cosmic-scale malevolence. I.e. there is a god, and he hates you. Haven’t we seen this before in Preacher? (Is it a Celtic thing? A product of growing up in sectarian environments?)
Of course, with Morrison the focus is less on religious institutions and more on the perhaps inevitably ugly relationship between creator and creation, as seen in Animal Man etc. But where does that assumption of ugliness come from? When we are given powerless entities to play with — whether dolls, fictional characters, or, based on what I (as an only child) have heard, younger siblings — our cruelty takes on remarkably inventive dimensions.
Morrison’s notes suggest that such cruelty is the result of cosmic infiltration: whatever lurks out there is torturing us until we break apart to discover what makes us tick, and then we do the same to each other. While various characters are burnt and impaled and mutilated and what Burnham himself has described as “the dicktree” (NSFW. Not safe for anything. I have seen it once and can never forget it), white letters in black speech bubbles, a voice that is not, continually ask, “What is human?”
In one scene a naked man blistered with acid burns gurgles that humanity is its accomplishments, such as Beethoven’s symphonies. Beethoven, one of Europe’s greatest composers, robbed of the ability to hear his own music. What is human? Accomplishments — and needless suffering.
There is another reading of that terrible question which in true Nameless fashion points to something even worse. Maybe the tormentor god isn’t trying to find out “what is human”. Maybe it already knows and is trying to get us to admit it. What is human? It’s what our accomplishments hide: this desire to make others suffer; to, when presented with a choice between the path of light and the path of darkness, choose the darkness almost every damn(ed) time; to construct ever more elaborate justifications for the evil we perpetrate, trying unsuccessfully to displace it to the oblivion of the unknown universe while all the while it thrashes inside us, fucking, to paraphrase the comic itself, our private thoughts.
Human is viscera, which this comic has in abundance all over the carpet and walls, and the organ-laden branches of the dicktree.
Human is what snaps in you when you look up at the stars night after night and the hope you were waiting on never comes. Human is gravid with new evils, new creations to blame.