Outside/In

January 11th, 2019

The Green Lantern #1-3, written by Grant Morrison, drawn by Liam Sharp, coloured by Steve Oliff

LaGuardia #1-2, written by Nnedi Okorafor, drawn by Tana Ford, coloured by James Devlin

“The outside is not “empirically” exterior; it is transcendentally exterior, i.e. it is not just a matter of something being distant in space and time, but of something which is beyond our ordinary experience and conception of space and time” – Mark Fisher, The Weird and the Eerie

“It sickened me when I heard the expression for the first time, barely understanding it, the expression crime of hospitality [delitd'hospitalitej]. In fact, I am not sure that I heard it, because I wonder how anyone could ever have pronounced it…” - Jacques Derrida, On Hospitality

The three novellas that make up Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti series have a distinct weirdness to them, one that’s partially generated by the flurry of casual references to alien technology and partially down to the narrative structure of the series, which gives it the feel of a story constantly in motion. This is most literally true in the first volume, which promises an adventure at a space university starring a girl from a culture that has previously had no truck with it and instead takes place mostly on the harrowed journey there, but the pattern repeats itself in new forms throughout the trilogy.

In Binti’s world(s), new adventures, homecomings and trips to meet forgotten family members are all guaranteed to be fleeting, frustrated events. In fact, at some points it feels as though Binti barely has time to recognise a new destination before it’s shifted, recontextualised as yet another point of navigation on a journey that is implicitly endless, beyond Binti, beyond any of our stories.

There is much to learn and love out there, but also a history of violence and oppression that stretches further than we can see.

Through this process, this mix of literary and genre effects, Okorafor manages something paradoxical: she creates a deeply worldly feeling using otherworldly images. We might not spend much time at the university, but we do eventually realise that we’ve read a startlingly reconstruction of the learning experience itself.

In comparison, by not just situating the alien in the real but allocating it a role that is loaded with allegorical potential, LaGuardia ends up feeling like commentary, something that was built into Binti‘s treatment of the other without ever looking like it was likely to define it.

Not for nothing is this comic named after an airport, which is to say, after the destination of travel – in this case. a gateway to potential permanence unknown in the Binti saga.

A strange doubling occurs within the first two issues of LaGuardia, which uses aliens as stand-ins for immigrants trying to get to the USA and also finds the time to deal with an immigration lawyers struggle to get three young men from Sudan through customs. As Okorafor says in her postscript to the first issue, “It’s metaphor and it’s literal“.

This is fun for both of us to say, but what it means on the page is that LaGuardia is the sort of book where you’re watching a strange plant creature literally trying to make roots in New York for one half of an issue, only to spend the other half watching Earthborn characters wonder why they would even want to live in a country that so openly hates them just for trying to go there: 

This isn’t a criticism of the comic’s construction, of course, but it’s definitely something to keep an eye on.

At present, the answer to the question of what lies behind the desire to police that which we don’t understand depicted in LaGuardia leads us back to real world bias and politics. But does it also risk collapsing otherness entirely into terms we too readily understand, or of framing the familiar – people who just want to live in one place rather than another – as being more alien than they are?

This uncertainty gives the series a great deal of its sense of promise and of risk at this stage. Whether this doubling will lead to even stranger effects in later issues or whether it’s designed to defamiliarise what can already be known remains to be seen. But if the overrun gardens of this story are less to my tastes than Binti‘s rich, fleeting textures, it’s still a set-up that is florid with potential. The narrative has thus far allowed plenty of space for character and dialogue to cluster around the tenements, motorways and waiting areas of the first two issues and Ford responds with enthusiasm, even allowing the fauna to sprawl off the page and into the panel borders at points in a move that feels like a prelude to their eventual residence in our world:

Okorafor has mentioned Will Eisner’s A Contract with God as an inspiration, and if Tana Ford’s art lacks the clear, theatrical staging of Eisner’s work, she still provides a range of appealing faces and fauna for you to grow attached to:

This is the strongest aesthetic argument in LaGuardia #1-2, the one that serves as the best argument for hospitality to be found in these pages. A couple of issues in, we can see life here, and however little we understand where it’s come from we may find ourselves in the position of wanting to get to know it. Perhaps this brings it’s appeal round closer to that of the Binti series than it might initially appear – after all, in the end these are both stories that ask us to pay attention to the unfamiliar, to understand the traumas that have shaped it even while we experience our own.

***

If his work on The Green Lantern has so far seen Grant Morrison escape the information death of the DC multiverse, we can probably trust that it’ll all bend towards that story in the end – this is how it played out in every reincarnation of Batman he oversaw, after all. In the meantime, however, the focus on genuinely weird procedural detail and endless gnarly visuals as an end into themselves has been refreshing.

Earth is a part of these stories, but not as a stable setting like it is in LaGuardia. In the first issue it serves as a sort of holiday home for our wandered protagonist, while in the third issue it us relegated to the status of a sort of black market good, and as a site of friction for our freshly re-drafted hero:

This displacement of the Earth’s centrality is a novel twist on Morrison’s recent cosmic schtick, which has tended to place a cluster of imaginary Earths at the centre of his metafictional scheme, an Orrery of Worlds. This makes sense in context – Final Crisis, Multiversity and their derivatives are stories we’ve written about stories we’ve written, so our position at the heart of things is fairly undeniable there – and combines with the abundance of strange characters and situations to give the book a sense that it’s moving outward into realms where our priorities are not necessarily the only ones in the mix.

The method isn’t the same as the one deployed in Morrison’s JLA run, where different realities piled into each other in an infinite egress that had no clear centre, but on a page by page basis it has a similar impact.

On this front, while the black and white preview images of Liam Sharp’s art promised great things…

…perhaps the biggest surprise of the series so has been the way that Steve Oliff’s colours have added to the perceptual rush rather than flattened it out:

As that last image suggests, Morrison and Sharp are leaning towards a storytelling style that makes prolific use of grandiose splash images. Beat-by-beat action is drawn by Sharp with the rough elegance of old Gil Kane comics and framed in smaller insert panels that emphasise the wilder cosmic context wherever possible. Issue #3 has a particularly fine example of the form, with the clash between space cop and space god teased on the issue’s cover staged in a cosmic array that explicitly frames Earth as just one of many worlds in a an unfamiliar constellation:

You can annotate all of this – and handsome Ben is doing his usual excellent job of it right now – but it doesn’t diminish the aesthetic impact of these different textures or do anything to slow the uneasy momentum of the plotting.

Still, though, for all that The Green Lantern generates the friction of contact with the outside on almost every page, we would do well to question whether its implicit structure runs contrary to this tendency. For all their garbled grandeur, the crimes committed in this comic so far – slave trading, robbery, murder – suggest a banal order to the universe, one that allows for the same terrible things to be done everywhere and for the enforcement of what we would recognise as “law” on a phenomenal scale.

Is there any such thing as the alien if it can all be so neatly policed?

This question is built in to the comic courtesy of its status as a corporate product – it’s a comic about a cop, remember, it even says so on the cover – but to Morrison and Sharp’s credit they’re doing a good job of maintaining the illusion of uncertainty so far.

The first issue ended with the suggestion that there was a flaw in the cosmic lawbook, the second with the reveal that Earth had been displaced and the third with the suggestion that cops may in fact be straight up bad. The decentring effect of these twists and the endless visual shocks hits a peak in issue ’3, which blithely brushes off climate change only to introduce a sci-fi conceit that could be its double, reduces mankind to a bunch of easily manipulated, greedy saps, and invokes the voting rights of the bulk of the Earth’s biota for good measure:

The potential for disappointment is built into all of this too, of course. For one thing, it seems unlikely that Time Warner will let their space cop so readily embody the worst cop behaviour exhibited in this latest issue, and the plot has clearly signposted much of this as shenanigans. Still, while you’re reading it, there’s a genuine rush of strangeness to the narrative to match the raw otherness of the visuals. For a moment in issue #3, the idea of one of us deigning to go out and impose our will on the cosmos seems as absurd as it truly is.

There’s still galactic slave traders out there though, so just as LaGuardia thrives on the tension between drawing the outside in and projecting our own experience outwards, The Green Lantern hums uneasily with both the desire to encounter something truly new and the need to understand it, to be reassured that the boundaries of the possible don’t stray too far from our experience of the world in all of its wretchedness.

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