Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #206: Sudden Gravity by Greg Ruth

Sometimes you just can't even. It could be the world at large, or another person, or a work of art. But you can't grasp it, or deal with it, or do anything coherent.

I'm perilously close to that point with Sudden Gravity, but I want to try to understand it, as best I can: it's ferociously well-drawn and impressively intelligent, and there's clearly something meaty here. But it's also even more impressively hermetic, closing in on itself from all directions and resolutely refusing to be clear or understandable. And it clearly was a passion project for creator Greg Ruth -- you want to take seriously things that other people pour a lot of time and effort into, and work at a high level of professionalism on.

But damn if I can tell you what Sudden Gravity is about.

Maybe I can sketch some general outlines. As far as I can tell, it was a mini-series from Caliber Comics in 1997, and then reprinted in a single volume -- which is how I read it -- by Dark Horse in 2006. It's subtitled "a Tale of the Panopticon," but there don't seem to be any other tales of the panopticon. (At least, not from Ruth -- it's a term that predates him, invented by Jeremy Bentham in the late 18th century to describe a jail or similar institution where the keepers can watch all of the inmates without the inmates knowing who is being watched at any given moment.)

Frankly, I can't even tell you what the title means. And, while the institution in the book is called  Bentham Hospital, and the external shots look like the classical panopticon, the plot taking place inside it is not particularly about the management watching everybody, nor does the interior look much like Bentham's conception.

So, OK. Names aside. There's this big mental hospital in New York. Commissioner Alice Spark is being taken there after having (allegedly) setting the house fire that killed her husband and children. Already there is a catatonic boy who apparently has been the same age for generations, and who starts to speak when something particularly horrific is about to happen. One doctor lost his eyesight (possibly his actual physical eyes) in an encounter with that boy fifteen years ago, and another disappeared entirely and has been considered dead since then. The rest of the doctors are similarly quirky and damaged, almost as much so as the inmates.

There's also a secret society which may be trying to hasten the end of the world and to which some of the doctors of Bentham may belong -- either knowingly or not. And the hospital is full of eerie paintings which exactly depict future events that will happen in front of them.

Our story begins five days before something major happens, as signposted on the first page. Ominous stuff happens on nearly every page, with characters speaking backwards (often in long words and names that have not previously been mentioned, making their messages difficult to decipher), bizarre murders, portentous conversations, portal-esque murals, interpersonal conflict, secrets from the hospital's fiendish Victorian founder, potentially supernatural events, and a general air of unease and disquiet. It will not be clearly explained. You may not know who the players are or what they're playing for. It may not be clear what has happened by the end.

The touchstone usually evoked for Sudden Gravity is Twin Peaks: this is another story of menace and strangeness, with mysterious messages that aren't entirely explicable, combatants whose aims and purposes stay obscure, and endings that don't entirely satisfy. It's appropriate: if you liked one, you may like the other.

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