Monday, December 01, 2008

From the vault: The Blot

This review originally ran in issue #287 of The Comics Journal

The Blot By Tom Neely

There’s a danger in reviewing Tom Neely’s new book, The Blot, of being too effusive, praising the comic to the skies to the point where the reader starts rolling his eyeballs upward and saying “Come on. It can’t possibly be that good.” No one wants to lead the hype parade if the main float isn’t a stunner.

And yet The Blot really is that good. I’m actually sorely tempted, for example, to compare it to the first issue of Acme Novelty Library, or The Biological Show or Good-Bye Chunky Rice. Not that it’s necessarily standing on the same high aesthetic ground as those works (though I’d find it hard to believe it won’t be included on my “best of” list come January), but rather that it’s an impressive and declarative debut in the same fashion that those other books were. This is the type of book where after reading it you get the feeling you’re going to start expecting big things from the artist from here on out.

And there you go, rolling your eyes. Never mind, let’s move on.

The plot of this wordless graphic novel follows a nameless everyman -- let’s call him Tom, since, though I doubt he looks anything like the author, I find it hard to believe there isn’t some sort of autobiographical element that informed this work.

Anyway, Tom’s life is irrevocably and tragically altered by the arrival of a seemingly menacing ink blot. First appearing in the daily newspaper, and then out of thin air around a corner, the blot is seemingly everywhere, the stuff of one’s most primal nightmares. It’s as small or large as it needs to be, and can even inhabit the bodies of the most innocuous-looking folks – like children.

That being the case, the first third of the book resembles a horror film as Tom’s world starts to inexplicably disappear, only to be replaced by the ever growing and ever ominous inkblot. In fact the initial build-up in an early bathroom sequence is the type of thing you might expect in your average slasher film (though Neely subverts those expectations well).

But again, as in most nightmares, attempting to fight off the blot only results in Tom literally battling and destroying himself. Eventually he has no recourse but to give in to it, allow it to inhabit his body, and become a social pariah.

So far so good. In the second third of the book, our hero, resigned to his fate, his face obscured by the blot, finds succor and acceptance in the arms of a young, attractive woman. She gives him the strength to literally rise above the masses and accept his condition.

And it’s here that that book takes one of several interesting turn. Up until now we’ve regarded the blot as a menace, a destructive, dangerous force and something to be avoided at all costs. And we’ve pitied our hero as he’s struggled with his burden. A lesser artist would have left the metaphor lie strictly on that level: a hero burdened by his cross is saved by the love of a good woman.

Neely smartly aims for something a little stranger and deeper than that though. The woman shows Tom not only how to survive his affliction but how to thrive with it. The blot suddenly becomes capable of great works of creation, sprouting flowers where there were none, building homes, healing broken bodies. What at first was perceived as deadly is now a constructive, healing force (though it’s still capable of destruction and later serves as a formidable weapon).

Again, a lesser book might end here, with our hero triumphant over his new-found power. It’s clear from the very beginning, however, that the woman’s feelings for Tom are ambivalent at best and more than likely fueled by pity at worst. You know from her first appearance that heartbreak can’t be far away (in fact, it’s possible that her indecisiveness is one of the few moments where Neely overplays his hand). Her eventual betrayal in a chapter suggestively titled “Wanton” and his subsequent sorrow (he literally beats himself up -- easily the most disturbing section of the book) is harrowing.

Neely wisely never comes out and says what exactly the blot, or any of the other creatures our hero comes across, is supposed to represent. It’s enough that our hero fears its encroaching presence at all costs. There are hints scattered throughout; references to Moby Dick for example. But mostly he refuses to draw any easy metaphors between the story and the human condition. It’s not surprising that Neely’s influences are strongly evident (Jim Woodring, Al Columbia, Floyd Gotttfriedson), though I should add that they’re never so strong as to threaten to overwhelm the work.

If fact, if there’s any theme at all to The Blot it’s the impermanence of things. Nothing lasts in Neely’s world, be it abstract of physical. Everything is immaterial and transient and in danger of literally fading away from one panel to the next.

As you might imagine in a book about a destructive ink blot, Neely uses black frequently and liberally throughout the book, often having it dominate a full page, not only to separate the chapters, but often to offer an extra beat, hinting at shameful, horrors being foisted upon our hero that are best left unseen.

Neely’s imagery, meanwhile, is stark and powerful. On a certain level, that is mainly due to the simple juxtaposition of his early 20th century big foot, Mickey Mouse cartoon style (the main character even wears three-fingered gloves) and the disturbing, adult nature of the story.

But Neely proves to be an adept cartoonist beyond his mere rendering capabilities, using a simple grid structure, often breaking the action down into two, three or six panels per page, to wind up the tension. His sense of timing is excellent.

The book isn’t perfect. Not all of these different stories line up perfectly in a straight line from a to b. To a small extent, the love story regarding the woman and the main character’s troubles with the blot feel like two separate stories that Neely attempted to stitch together. It’s not something so damaging as to harm the book, but it is noticeable.

Caveats aside, The Blot remains a striking, highly original work that succeeds not only in its surreal, disturbing imagery but also in its ability to blend the sour-sad and beautiful in one volume.

It’s not for nothing that the book’s final image is of a lemon tree, which, as the song reminds us is very pretty but impossible to eat. A talented chef, however, can use those lemons to make one hell of a pie.

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