This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on September 27, 2015.
Story: Grant Morrison
Art: Chris Burnham
Colors: Nathan Fairbairn
Solicit: The soul-destroying origin story of the man known only as “Nameless” is uncovered in all its horror. What caused “Nameless” to surrender his identity? What are the sickening secrets of the Razor House Project? And what went wrong in there? On the eve of extinction, all is finally revealed.
Chase Magnett: The most common question that will be raised about Nameless #5 is “what just happened?”
Nameless was revealed to be a victim of horrible trauma who had already encountered the imprisoned Other. What happened was so terrible that he wiped any knowledge of the incident from his own mind and found himself set on a path that would inevitably return him to the monstrosity.
Or, the entity locked away in asteroid Xibalba has broken into Nameless’ mind in order to implant a horrifying story, breaking him down from the inside. He is the last man standing in the face of Armageddon, but is crippled by fear in the face of an omnipotent being.
Or, Nameless is existing between two events, his own horrific origin and the end of the world, his status summarized by the phrase “Zirom Trian Ipam Ipamis”, or “Was, Is, Will Be”. He knows both what has happened and what will happen, but is now floating in pain between those two points in time shackled by his own fears and regrets.
Each of these readings can be discovered within the text, and they are all understandable based upon Nameless #5. However, they’re all attempting to answer the wrong question. What’s important here isn’t the truth of what is happening, but what it all means.
No matter how you choose to read Nameless, whether you embrace a single point of view or the endless possibilities unlocked behind Burnham’s symbolic layouts, the thematic core remains constant. The heart of the story rests in a big, bold letters across a spread at the very start, in the issue’s title: “Star of Fear.”
Every scene in Nameless #5 centers on the unnamed hero’s fear. He is shown breaking in the middle of a seance, fleeing his guilt by attempting to commit cognitive suicide, and screaming as he is dragged ever deeper into psychological and space-based hells. Individually, these scenes are tonal poems, simultaneously beautiful and horrific under Burnham’s pencils and Fairbairn’s colors. They can be dissected one-by-one to discover independent narratives of confronting horror in an uncaring universe.
The revelation of what the prisoner inside of Xibalba may be is significant for this reason. Rather than embracing the fear of an unconcerned universe found in existentialism, Morrison goes one step further and adds God back into the equation as an entity who desires to provoke mental anguish. So we watch Nameless move between utterly fantastic and bizarre situations that are utterly relatable at their core. Failing your friends, hurting others, and being left alone racked by guilt and fear. He is us at our lowest displayed in stunning RBG colors, drawing those emotions out to incredible effect.
Everything that happens in Nameless #5 is happening to Nameless. It doesn’t matter whether these events are real or just in his head. He experiences it all and so it all matters. What he feels, how he responds, why he does it all: These are the questions that matter, no matter how real each scene is. As another famous comics writer from the United Kingdom once said, “This is an imaginary story… Aren’t they all?”
Jamil Scalese: Damnit, Chase, just like Morrison you’re going to make me work and think and stuff. Shit.
Immersing oneself in this comic is like swimming in a pool of cherry Jello only to realize that what you think is a jiggly, fruity dessert is actually a tub of gelatinous human remains. Surrounded in gore and muck and confusion you try to escape but you can’t gain any momentum, mired in a blob of ugliness and death. You accept your fate, and just as you slowly start to sink the bottom of the horror show you realize “This ain’t so bad” and you admire the lovely shade of red that envelopes and suffocates your life.
Was that an intense enough metaphor? Hardly. My dumb words can merely glean the macabre complexity ofNameless #5. Morrison takes the concept of non-linear narrative to the maximum level by consistently switching locales, making everything feel nebulously nightmare-like. Are these events happening simultaneously? Is this a was/is/will be scenario? Who is real? What is real? Am I real?
Despite its ambition this series is hardly a reach for Morrison, and it slots nicely into his body of work. The comic is wrought with supernatural existentialism and theology, much of it rooted in the mythologies of the Mayan and related cultures, and follows one of the author’s career motifs of trying to decipher the seemingly paradoxical problem of God and evil. There are a few ideas here that are profound, and others that are so ornate that I can barely wrap my noggin around them. Just about every time I think Morrison just made up a word or phrase to sound clever I find an accompanying Wikipedia page about a whole bunch of occult shit I’ve never even sniffed.
What I like and hate most about this comic, and by extension the writer, is that it’s mostly over my head and forces me to think. As a slave to plot I’m a huge fan of structure, denouement, twists and the like, and Nameless, issue #5 in particular, is almost anti-plot, purposefully skewing the reader’s perception of time and location to dig at deeper concepts. Just like our hero Nameless we are put through the friggin’ gauntlet.
Luke Miller: I’m going to take issue with the solicitation for this issue here. I read all five of these in the span of 24 hours, thinking it would help with comprehension, but “all is finally revealed” seems like a bit of an overstatement. Granted, we get a lot more detail about the character of Nameless, but we hardly get anything that can be taken as “truth.” As with all things Morrisonian, “truth” is relative, but this series might epitomize it more than most.
As Chase mentioned earlier, you can read this several different ways. My take: the events of issue #5 take place, for the most part, before the events of #1-4. We see the character of Nameless and his benefactor Paul Darius participate in a sort of extraterrestrial seance long before their ill-fated mission to the asteroid Xibalba. This seance goes terribly wrong and Nameless goes through a memory/personality-wiping procedure to erase the horrors he witnessed and committed that night. This puts him on track to participate in the mission to the asteroid and release the Lovecraftian-demon God imprisoned within. Of course, this being Morrison, I won’t know if that’s right until this series is until wrapped up, and your interpretation may vary.
Two things really struck me with this issue (aside from “confusion”): First, I was a little taken aback by the setting. For the first issues we’ve been dealing with a scenario of “Alien/2001: A Space Odyssey/space horror where no one can here you scream” mixed with the Great Old Ones and Outer Gods of Lovecraft and the impending end of the world. This issue, we focus on some grisly murders and a haunted house. It was such a departure, plot-wise at least, that it forced me to focus on the thematic element running through it – and all I could think of was “fear,” particularly fear of the unknown and fear of pain.
The other thing that struck me was the layouts. Throughout the series, they have felt just odd and strange enough to make me feel slightly uncomfortable. Most of the panels are at weird angles to each other, and the ones that are square are rectangular frequently feature art that is angular or off-centered. It was very off-putting, but I also didn’t have any trouble following the panels sequentially, which I thought was a fairly impressive feat. Did either of you guys get that?
I’m not sure I even want to touch on the whole “what is real?” thread in this book, mostly because I’m not sure I understand it, or even want to try to understand it at this point. This whole title is just weird and scary and I’m just going along for the ride right now.
Chase: I think one of the most important questions we can ask when examining a comic is: Why is this a comic? Morrison has shown a knack for prose, but he spends the vast majority of his time in the comics medium. That’s not an accident. For as much confusion as we have all expressed regarding plot elements like “structure, denouement, twists”, we are all expressing a strong reaction and connection to the work. The truth is that what we’re seeing here couldn’t work as a novel or a film, it has to be a comic and a comic with a very strong sense of visual storytelling. Nameless #5 functions because of Chris Burnham and Nathan Fairbairn’s contributions; they make the comic comprehendible, even when it’s inconceivable.
Time, space, and reality are all relative in this comic, a mad man’s game of three card monte. You will never fail to recognize what you are experiencing in each individual moment though. When Nameless is exploring a haunted house and confronting a malevolent, cosmic entity, there is no doubt about what is occurring. This section of the story reads clearly. The only doubt lies within how these pieces connect to one another and what they mean.
Yes, Nameless is going to make you think (sorry, I’m not sorry), but it’s going to give you all of the tools you need to discern meaning. There is a haunted house story here, and a cosmic horror story, and a sad story of a mentally ill man. They may all be real or none of them may be, but they are all certainly imaginary. It’s when Burnham begins to weave them together that the real magic happens though.
You mentioned Burnham’s symbolic layouts as something that probably shouldn’t work, but definitely do. Those not only show the skilled craftsmanship of the artist, but lay a foundation to weave all these disparate parts together. Nameless uses these same sorts of symbols to weave his spells and, most importantly, protect the crew in space. They and the other symbolic elements of the story are the connective tissue that weave it all together, universal constants in a constantly changing universe. They also indicate that there is a need for protection. We are looking through these pages like an astronaut looking through a visor to see something entirely alien. Perhaps the crew aren’t the only ones in need of protection.
Burnham doesn’t rely entirely upon symbols to connect what was, what is, and what will be though. His ability to craft memorable imagery, characters, and moments allows him to make call backs from previous issues that might have faded in the reader’s mind with a lesser artist. All of these things are really just more complex symbols, but Burnham brings them to life. The faces of the crew, even members who never spoke, are instantly recognizable within the haunted house. Keys, brain worms, and stoic, glowing frogs all weave these narratives into one when Burnham decides to allow us a glimpse into Nameless’ mind. It’s all real to him, and we can see it all on display as a barrage of beautiful, gelatinous carnage.
The connection of these different scenes and places isn’t entirely Burnham’s task though. It is easy to sort through the panels emerging from Nameless’ head because they are separated by their color palettes. Fairbairn separates place and time by using easily recognizable schemes.The glowing blues and dulls browns and greens stand out obviously, but even the mix of violent reds, oranges, and yellows are made purposefully distinct by a variety of hues. He is locking us into the tone and feeling of each individual scene, and then giving us the tools necessary to parse information when they come together.
No matter how complex Nameless may be becoming, it is neither incomprehensible nor vacuous. Meaning is there, but Morrison, Burnham, and Fairbairn are not interested in hand feeding it to you. They want you to discover meaning, and have given you all of the tools necessary to do so. Reading Nameless #5 isn’t about finding one right answer; it’s about finding meaning on a larger scale. You have everything you need to do that, if you’re willing to put in the work.
Jamil: Due primarily to budgetary reasons I was about to drop Nameless this week if this issue didn’t make sense. What’s ironic is that it was less coherent than any other previous installment yet is now solidified on my subs list. That’s because of Chris Burnham and Nathan Fairbairn.
In many ways this is a magnificently crafted single issue. Luke, I agree on the layouts being duplicitous in their off-putting but approachable nature. The design as a whole speaks to the teetering makeup of madness that Nameless is experiencing throughout and as evident in our group review here the feeling of confusion and queasiness absolutely leaps from page to brain. At the very least when the plot breaks down we’re given something cool to look out. That’s true creative team synergy.
I’m extremely intrigued by the reflection theme running through #5, lots of mirrors and references to anti-universes and such. Even more, I loved the spots where Morrison/Burnham manipulated the sense of time, like in the scene where Razor House team is introduced. On the outskirts of the main panel you can see the characters chopped to pieces, absolutely eviscerated like a pit bull ripping through tissue paper. The concept of duality and opposite permeates all aspects.
You’re correct on the impact of Fairbairn’s contribution, Chase. In my mind’s eye this issue’s aura is blood red, but in reality it’s so much more than that. The previous issues were so metallic, gray and brooding that this one comes off as violently vibrant. Some of the jolting location changes are punctuated perfectly by Fairbairn’s choices. The part were we see the aliens from Marduk open a door to the “shadow universe” is a prime example, a page split between a dimly-lit cosmic seance and a technicolor science experiment against a flat plane of magenta.
Grant Morrison typically pairs with top level artist and naturally is able to get some great work out of them, but inNameless I believe that Chris Burnham and Nathan Fairbairn are the metronome to which the story sets its pace. They provide a special brand of clarity amongst madness. With a different team there might be questions as to the cohesion between the script and art but the way this is drawn and colored it’s pretty plain that, yes, Morrison is just simply a wildman.
Luke: Madness and fear are the names of the game here, gents. If I had to tell someone what this book was about, that would be it right there. Madness and fear. Fear isn’t necessarily that difficult to convey, and it’s not an emotion that’s extremely hard to evoke in an audience. Fear is primal. It’s something every human being knows and can relate to. Madness, though? That’s tough. It’s hard to express and harder still to evoke. Most of the time, when I read something that someone has written where they try to express something from the point of view of a “madman,” it comes across as something written by a pompous douche thinking “here’s what I think a crazy person would think.” It just doesn’t work. This, on the other hand, feels like all three artists said “how do I feel/think when I feel the least sane?” Then, they smashed all those thoughts together to bake a cake of insanity that could not have existed on its own.
Here’s the best analogy I can come up with: imagine you were to go into an artist’s shop and asked him to paint “insanity.” (I’m not sure “artist shops” are a thing anymore, so for the sake of argument, let’s just say we’re in the Netherlands in the 16th century.) No matter what that person painted, it would probably make at least some sort of sense, because it was one person’s linear, logical interpretation of “insanity.” Now, let’s say you went into a second artist’s shop and asked him to paint “insanity.” Then, you went into a third and asked for the same thing. Then you took all three finished pieces, blindfolded yourself, cut them up, shuffled the shreds, threw away about two-thirds of them, and then blindly pasted the remains to a new piece of canvas. Whatever you were left with wouldn’t make any sense at all.
That hodgepodge of collaborative crazy is what this book felt like to me. The plot didn’t matter. The characters didn’t matter (the protagonist is Nameless, after all). The setting didn’t matter. All that mattered were the emotions that accompanied those elements: madness and fear.