Mr. Vertigo Reviews 59: Black Dog – The Dreams of Paul Nash; Dark Night – A True Batman Story; A.D. – After Death

Black Dog: The Dreams of Paul Nash
Dave McKean
Dark Horse Books, 2016

Paul Nash was a British artist famous for his paintings inspired by his experiences on the frontline during the First World War: first as a soldier, and then as an official war artist. Dave McKean had long been fascinated by Nash’s work, so he jumped at the opportunity to create this book on commission from the UK art program for the First World War centenary.

McKean created an impressionistic biography (as one would expect from his past work). The account progresses chronologically, but does not attempt to tell Nash’s entire life story in detail. Instead key events are illustrated, capturing Nash’s internal emotional state as much as the external action.

Nash was born in 1889, but the first chapter takes place in 1904. Nash recalls his first dream, which is also the first appearance of the titular black dog. Nash fought depression his entire life, but clearly the dog is meant to symbolize far more than that. The dog recurs in different ways: in Chapter 6 he appears in a military hospital as a doctor.

The final chapter (Chapter 15) is set in 1921, in the Queen Square Hospital for Nervous Diseases in London. Nash is still recovering from the effects of the war. A doctor tells him to wake up (a scene I found oddly reminiscent of the opening of Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman series, where McKean made his first big splash as a cover artist). Nash comes to, recalling Hawk’s Wood, the forest of his childhood.

It’s a lovely ending. Nash went on to a further artistic career–including another brief stint as an official World War Two artist–before his death in 1946 at age 57. But McKean’s choice makes perfect sense as an artistic statement. It is the final resolution of Nash’s World War One experience, the event with which he is most closely identified.

I confess to have completely overlooked this book until it was nominated for an Eisner Award. But no fan of McKean’s art will want to miss it. It is as stunningly beautiful as anything he has done, which is truly saying something. He seems to have found a most inspiring subject here. He applies his usual mixed media approach to great effect: a combination of drawing, painting and collage. It’s a frequently bleak subject, but McKean finds many brilliant uses for color. There are some wonderfully memorable images: I was especially struck by a spread of an airship in the form of a fish, highlighted by spotlights above a city at night. It is appropriate that the book is presented in an oversized format, similar to European comics.

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Dark Night: A True Batman Story
Paul Dini, writer; Eduardo Risso, artist
Vertigo Comics, 2016

Writer Paul Dini had a dream job during the 1990s: scripting the hugely popular Batman: The Animated Series and Tiny Toon Adventures. There was sufficient Hollywood buzz around those projects for Dini to date starlets. Walking home one evening, he was jumped and brutally beaten, leaving him with several broken bones and a shattered face that required reconstruction.

That event is the “dark night” of the title, but there is much more to the story than that. Dini fills in background on how he got interested in art growing up, as well as his personal and professional life before the assault. This has little to do with his physical healing, but everything to do with his psychological response. It’s telling that he does not even think to go to a hospital until the next day.

Which is where the Batman comes in. As Dini heals, he imagines Batman as the better angel of his nature, encouraging him to become more self-reliant and re-engage with the world. The Batman villains (the Joker especially, but also Poison Ivy, the Penguin,  and Scarecrow) play on his fears, encouraging him to malinger. For awhile he hides out in his apartment, playing video games and feeling sorry for himself. At one point he even considers buying a gun to restore his feelings of agency.

A chance encounter at a record store (remember those?) shows him that his work does matter. Making a woman with cancer feel better, even briefly, was a more meaningful result than he had previously imagined. Perhaps a small thing, but enough to push Dini back into his life. Emerging from this personal crisis is the end of the story. Dini gives a brief summary of the twenty-three years since the mugging, and how he continues to cope. It may be a little pat, but it’s a satisfying ending. Dini has told a harrowing autobiographical story very effectively using comics. Substantial credit has to go to Eduardo Risso’s artwork as well. The noir story telling and distinctive character designs he employed in 100 Bullets fit this story very well.

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A.D.: After Death
Scott Snyder, writer; Jeff Lemire, illustrator
Image Comics, 2017

Dystopian science fiction has become an increasingly crowded genre, but Snyder and Lemire have managed to come up with a unique concept–and they execute it brilliantly. The story begins in 825 AD (or “After Death”). Humanity’s situation is revealed bit by bit as protagonist Jonah Cooke’s story is told.

The good news: death has been conquered, and the human lifespan is now hundreds of years long. The bad news: human memory span has not been increased, so no one can remember their life beyond fifty years or so into the past (a very creative twist). And the surface of the globe has been poisoned, so the survivors are all living in a sanctuary high up in the mountains.

Jonah has been writing things down, so he thinks he remembers his past; he also has a large collection of stolen objects with memories attached. He is obsessed with making contact with the surface, sure that an expedition called Forager has left survivors who are attempting to communicate. He knows he has had a relationship with a woman named Inez over the years, but she doesn’t remember, and he has only journal entries to go by. There’s a sick child named Claire that he want to help by taking her to the surface with him.

These people are basically immortal, which has unintended consequences. There is mostly a feeling of senseless repetition rather than endless possibilities (although Jonah mentions knowing how to play the guitar and the piano without remembering how or when he learned those skills–maybe a bit of a Groundhog Day reference). The climax turns the story on its head, as it is revealed that Jonah has been repeating the same actions for many cycles. The image of the tree on the cover of the book also turns out to be significant. I don’t want to reveal too much, but it’s a startling twist at the end. I expect to reread A.D. with different eyes.

The format is unusual as well. There are large sections of almost pure text–making it basically a prose novel some of the time. This is counterbalanced by extended passages of Lemire’s painted art, some of them nearly wordless. I do think that the central action is all illustrated, making “graphic novel” a reasonable description. And most importantly, the end result is a fascinating story. Snyder and Lemire are both operating at the top of their game here.

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