Among my welcome gifts of comics this Christmas are the final instalments of two series that have been going for a couple of years. Though they share a principal author, they evoked vastly different responses in me: I was just relieved that one of them was over at last, and the final pages of the other had me welling up.
Jeff Lemire (writer), Andrea Sorrentino (artist) and Dave Stewart (colorist), Gideon Falls, Volume 6: The End (Image Comics 2021, originally published as issue 27 of the comic)
This has been a brilliant piece of complex story telling, matched by superbly challenging art work. There’s a kind of zombie apocalypse with hideous grins, happening in at least three time periods but all in the same place. There’s endless confusion about which people and institutions are on the side of good, and which in thrall to evil. There’s a weird blend of scientism and the occult, and an abundance of surgical masks that belies the story’s pre-Covid-19 beginnings (and don’t make any obvious sense without the Covid–19 reference).
Horror is a genre whose appeal is lost on me. That, and the sense on page after page that I had to work hard just to figure out what was going on, means I was pretty cool about the series, and this final instalment didn’t warm me up. The occasional page is upside down, for a start, and to my eye at least the characters never take on clear individual qualities. Interestingly, among the included extras is the script of the original comic: reading it would be an ideal way of sorting out who everyone was, and what was happening on the pages where the images were indecipherable to me. I was tempted, but in the end I decided I’d rather live with being too stupid to follow the story than expend any more effort on it.
Jeff Lemire & Dustin Nguyen (storytellers), Steve Wands (lettering and design), Will Dennis (editor), and Tyler Jennes (assistant editor), Ascender Volume Four: Star Seed (Image Comics 2021, from issues 15–18 of the comic)
This volume brings an end to six years of space opera – the six-part Descender. and the the four-part Ascender. This also has been a brilliantly complex story-telling, whose visual complexity sometimes tipped over into incomprehensibility. Here too several distinct stories have occupied the same space in a vertigo-inducing manner.
But at the heart of this saga are two small children under threat, one of whom is a robot, so the reader has an emotional grounding. We know who to barrrack for when they flex their great powers (the robot), and who to fear for when the forces of empire and magic and machinery are out to destroy them (the flesh and blood girl).
Dustin Nguyen’s watercolour paintings, which I didn’t care for at all at first, turn out to serve the story beautifully. The scenes of violence are just as chaotic as anyone could wish. The bad guys, rather than being softened by the pastel colours, take on a kind of deliquescent vileness. And the children stay softly vulnerable throughout.
Among tying off of narrative threads, there’s a twist in the final moments that got to me. It takes real genius to set up a narrative tension that the reader is barely aware of, to let it simmer for years (years in the telling, and decades in the story itself), to lay careful last-minute groundwork for a resolution that the reader (this one anyway) sees as pure decoration, and then spring the resolution in just a single frame. I hope that’s abstract enough to leave the story unspoiled should you choose to read it.
Given my own widely divergent responses to these two series, I hesitate to recommend either of them without qualification. But if I was running a comic shop and you walked in off the street asking for recommendations, Jeff Lemire’s name would spring to my lips.