Saturday, May 15, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 101 (5/15) -- Can't Get No by Rick Veitch

Only five people have ever really understood Can't Get No. Two of them are dead -- one in the mountains of Afghanistan, the other in what the local sheriff swears was a case of spontaneous combustion. Another took an unbreakable vow of silence -- mutilating her tongue to prove it -- and entered a secret nunnery, somewhere in Switzerland. Rick Veitch just smiles, knowing an artist can never explain himself. What happened to the fifth is too unbelievable to put down into cold electrons.

The rest of us are left groping, like blind men with an elephant. I won't claim to have understood Can't Get No, or to be able to explain it to you. But these are the elephant pieces that struck my hands.

Comics are, supposedly, a medium in which words and pictures work together to tell a single story. Not here. Can't Get No combines art that tells one story -- a fairly straightforward one, very Veitchian in its focus on a single man looking to salvage his life, find his soul, or reach communion with something more than himself -- with words that occasionally seem to comment on the story, but instead run on to form a loose, rambling essay about everything and nothing in particular.

The text, being amorphous and protean, is easier to deal with: it has no single meaning, and is unfortunately written in that all-too-common tone of modern comics narration -- bombastic, in love with its own words and phrases, the nth generation child of Stan Lee and the overexplainers of the '50s. (There's a reason why mainstream comics avoid captions these days -- the fishhook of Stan and his followers is set so deeply in those characters and their writers that any narration will inevitably turn to self-parody: Excelsior! Advantageous!) Take a random page: "Only maddened beasts of prey... Who carry peevish virtue... ...wrapped rancid around their hearts." It's not a thought; it's not even a sentence. At best, it's prose poetry. At worst, it's just more goddamn comics.

In the story, marker-company executive Chad Roe is an anxious mess, soon before 9/11. When a comic-booky crisis destroys the value and existence of his firm overnight, he goes on a bender, and is picked up by two of the predatory women with feral eyes who have haunted Veitch's comics for three decades. They use his own product -- Eter-No-Mark, the Ultra-Permanent Marker -- to inscribe his entire body with a intricate pattern of lines. Chad runs, and runs, and runs, as 9/11 happens in the background, and has the usual journey across the country, finding friends and enemies, love and hatred, as he goes, and hitting a few iconic places, with even more iconography dragged in along the way.

Of course the title is untrue. Chad Roe does get -- he had a lot when the book began, gets and loses along the way, and gets back vastly more than he ever had by the end. The Stones song that really describes his story is "You Can't Always Get What You Want" -- and, even there, the emphasis is on always. And Chad certainly looks satisfied at the end.

Can't Get No is a weird, gnarly, inexplicable thing masquerading as a graphic novel. It resists all attempts at measured criticism, that prose-poem text forming an impenetrable shield, crackling with Kirby Dots, around the seemingly-obvious art. The half-size pages stretch that story out, making it feel longer and more substantial than it otherwise would be, giving space to one of Veitch's overflowing emotional moments on every page, without making them fight with each other. I can neither recommend Can't Get No or warn readers away. It is what it is. It's good to live in a world where something like this -- something you have to point at and just say "something like this" -- exists.
Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index
Listening to: Josh Ritter - Wolves (live)
via FoxyTunes

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