Monday, May 10, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 96 (5/10) -- Nil: A Land Beyond Belief by James Turner

James Turner has one of the great idiosyncratic art styles of modern comics -- a flat black-and white look with a wonderful design sense and incredible precision of line. In fact, that style is so flat and regimented -- particularly here in Nil, his first graphic novel from 2005 -- that one begins to assume that it's entirely computer-generated, with minimal input from humans. (Turner, though, isn't always as precise and airless as in Nil -- the style is directly connected to the substance here -- as a quick look at his illustration website will show.)

I previously read Rex Libris, Turner's second graphic novel, and found it overly talky and overly tepid. Nil is even talkier than Rex Libris: on top of the large cast of very chattery characters, Turner fills the background with wordy advertisements, newspaper pages and other gewgaws to make a rich soup of words. But Nil is much more directly satirical than Rex Libris was, so the talkiness is much stronger in context.

Nil is the story of Proun Nul, head engineer of the deconstruction airship Derrida, of the aggressively nihilistic country Nil. The capital, Nihilopolis, is regularly destroyed and rebuilt, and the government is the usual oligarchic tyranny from most similar satires, overlaid with Nil's particular corrosive cynicism and hatred for any kind of meaning or optimism. (Their great enemy -- the neighboring country with which they are perpetually at war -- is Optima, land of positive thinking.)

Nul takes the usual fool's journey -- accused of a crime (murder) he didn't commit, he flees the capital in an attempt to defect to Optima and ends up seeing much more of the country than he expected. The plot doesn't entirely cohere -- Nil is a sequence of amusing set-pieces on a string, but the string itself doesn't impose an overall structure -- and the ending is abrupt, cutting off the story without a real resolution. But Nil is a regularly funny exploration of the various types of negative thinking and self-hatred, and its copious dialogue is witty a good proportion of the time.

The art is difficult to adjust to, particularly at first. The characters are drawn with distinctive features, but the style tends to flatten out those features, making it difficult to remember which flat-faced Nil prole is Nul. That also tends to make Turner's art feel busy, since every precise line has the same weight and is at the same level on the picture-plane. But Nil is worth adjusting to; it depicts a carefully-constructed, intellectually amusing world, and tells a fine story in that world.
Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index
Listening to: Josh Ritter - Another New World
via FoxyTunes

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