I love it when a comic takes me to a place I’ve never been to before, and which I never could have imagined in my wildest dreams. The Signifiers is one of those comics. It contains three stories, each seeming to echo and amplify its companions.
The genius of a book like this lies in the fact that it’s extremely accessible while also taking readers to a world in which we have no grounding. Nothing can be taken for granted in this comic – it starts with a series of astonishingly bizarre scenes, and then just gets weirder from there. But creator Michael Neno’s art style gives the reader a base of comfort. The art seems to ground this odd story in a comfortable place, in which a knowledge of comics history allows readers to both feel grounded and confused.
Neno’s art often reminded me very much of the work of Jack Kirby, and I’m sure that’s no accident. There are echoes in Neno’s art of common Kirbyisms such as squared fingers, deeply lined faces, and an intense sense of boldness in the art. The story also has echoes of Kirby at times, and I think it’s a brilliant idea for Neno to use page three for a scene reminiscent of Kirby’s work on Forever People. I felt oddly comforted by the echo of Kirby in that moment; that echo helped me to feel more grounded in Neno’s world somehow.
While Kirby is obviously a strong influence on his art, Michael Neno obviously is his own man. All three stories in this issue are lovingly inked with a brush, old school style, and the lushness of Neno’s blacks are a joy to behold. There’s a gorgeous sense of darkness and mystery permeating this story, of bad events happening, made worse because of the blackness of the world. Neno does a wonderful job of conveying that blackness and mystery on every page.
I especially love the scene on page 8 of the first story in this book for its sense of mystery. Roth has just experienced a very strange root canal and is about to leave his dentist’s office. The dentist speaks to Roth, but most of his face is shrouded in blackness so deep that a reader has no choice but to wonder what lies under the all-encompassing darkness. Is the man deformed, or evil? Does the blackness convey the blackness of his actions, the moral ambiguity of his situation, or does it imply the dark events about to happen t Roth and his friends?
This comic is full of moments like that, especially the first story, “Millbrook”. There’s always a sense in the story that there are two worlds – the surface world that you can easily see, and a deeper, more complex and far darker world, in which strange and unknown forces are playing with us for reasons that we can never fully know.
Take the opening scene of the issue as an example. The book opens with a full-page close-up of a girl’s face. She’s in agony, screaming “Ahhhh!” as three bolts seem to slam through her face. She’s in so much pain that you can’t even see her eyeballs, and her eye sockets are surrounded by Kirby crackle. We turn the page and see that three strangely-garbed men are shooting bolts into a small dog. “What is that? A dog?” one man says. His companion replies, “Maybe a spaniel. I can’t tell.” while the third man, disconcertingly, screams “I’m without reason! Ha Ha!” Panel two shows a close-up of one of the men’s faces. He’s sweating and looking stressed out. “Whatever. We’re almost done.” Panel three: all three men are sweating and stressed as they hear a sound “Weeeeek!” Panel four brings us the payoff: we see the “dog.” But the “dog” has a human face, a girl’s face, and she looks as stressed and worried as any person could possibly be.
As a reader, I was thrown into a completely unexpected place by these first two pages. Many questions immediately came to mind upon reading this scene, as well as a set of unexpected emotions – empathy for the dog girl, confusion about the men – that served to completely suck me into the story. I wanted resolution to at least some of these mysteries, but as the 25-page lead story rumbled onward, I found more mysteries, more confusion, and many more reasons to want to read more of Michael Neno’s story. The familiar-feeling artwork both helps to give the reader a sense of comfort in the story and a deep feeling of uneasiness. The art is similar to other work that has provided comfort and pleasure, but here it brings material that’s completely unexpected.
It’s clear from the backmatter in the story and on Neno’s website that there’s a whole level of complexity to this world. Readers are just being introduced into this world, but Neno does a great job of juggling the various story elements and his character’s dialogue to keep the reader both off-balance and comforted. The unexpected Pulp Fiction-like moments in the story, for example when a alligator-headed man laments to his strange companion about an expensive CD, give the comics a very odd sense of verisimilitude.
These characters seem to live in a real world, even though the world seems as far from our own as any world possibly could be. It’s that element that really gives this comic its tremendous power.
Neno also gives readers two other stories in this issue, and both are also fun in their own unique ways. “Nellie of Cosmic Brook Farm or: Cosmic House on the Prairie” is a cute and clever terse story about farmers, aliens and true love. The third story, “Landlark, the Heat-Seeking Dwarf,” is reminiscent of the format of a Lee/Kirby story but goes into some very odd and unexpected territories. It seems to be about the freeing of the heart and mind of a strange dwarf who joins with some hippies. It’s all very strange and wonderful, made even more so by the wonderful Kirbyesque artwork.
I have no idea who The Signifiers are, or why alligators love rap music, or what the meaning is of the ghosts that seem to turn up in this story. But I found myself completely wrapped up in this comic book, and I’m dying to learn more about the strange world that Michael Neno has created.
You can find out more about this comic at nenoworld.com