I grew up on comics. They are part of my cultural and even moral DNA. I barely remember my first comics (i’m fairly sure my firsts included Batman, Superman, and Green Lantern), but i do vividly remember discovering New Gods, MisterMiracle, and The Forever People. These enchanted me no end. I have since read thousands (well over 10,000, in fact). And i’ve also read novels, seen movies, listened to operas, seen live theatre. I’ve developed a deep appreciation and knowledge of storytelling and narrative. And i’ve always wondered about the uniqueness of each form.
Actor/writer/storyteller Ricardo Keans Douglas, talking about his origins as a storyteller growing up in Grenada described how his parents would go to the movies on Sunday evenings. Such evenings were dubbed “moving going night.” The next evening, Monday, was called “moving telling night” as everyone would gather to hear his parents recount the story that they had seen. And it is clear from his recounting of this weekly ritual that “movie telling night” was as enchanting an experience as “movie going” might be.
Using one medium of communication or artistic expression to describe (or relate a piece of) another medium is common. And different media allow for different facets of a narrative to be exposed, focussed on, whathaveyou. This has lead me (and many others, of course) to realize that narrative is a powerful connecting thread across most, if not all, artistic media. Which allows for us to ask, what does each media do uniquely? Verbal description of movies or novels or comics can do a pretty good job of conveying what is going on with those media. Indeed, we accept that many movie and literary reviews represent well whether their subject is worth our time reading/viewing. There is even the technical term ekphrasis which is the act of describing or depicting one art in the medium of another (e.g. a written description of a painting).
Which brings me back to comics. One of the appeal of comics for me and many has been their pulpy/underground/underdog position in the hierarchy of cultural production. Comics, despite the many examples of mainstream acceptance, still draw on their cachet as cheap, unserious, for kids, etc. It’s a niche i don’t expect comics to give up anytime soon. Thus the vast majority of comics remain firmly rooted in the pulp terrain of superhero-horror-fantasy-crime narratives. And many of these are both easily and accurately rendered in other media - principally novelizations and film adaptations. And that’s cool. I like many of these ekphrastic undertakings. Which leads me to wonder if there is a comic that simply cannot be rendered ekphrastically. And, by jove, i think i’ve found it.
Ray Fawkes’ One Soul, is like no comic i have ever encountered before. Sure there are elements of simultaneity, parallel narratives, grid layouts, black and white, that are common and have been for a long time. But One Soul does something unique. Not “very unique” as my beloved Aunt Margaret once lambasted me for saying. “Something is unique or it is not unique. One cannot qualify "unique,”” she explained patiently. And thus, i say again, One Soul is unique. It does something not only that i’ve never before seen in comics, it does something that can only be done in comic form. It is both dazzling and challenging to read. Using an eighteen panel grid (3x3 on each facing page) he recounts 18 life stories. Each panel in the grid is part of a sequence with all the subsequent panels in that grid position. One could, i suppose, flip through this book 18 times, though that seems a bit excessive in terms of enjoying this work. My preferred method was to read all 18 stories simultaneously which, after a few pages, became a matter of personal contest/pride. It requires, as you might infer, holding 18 narrative threads in your head simultaneously. The choice of using exclusively black ink drawings and limiting words by focussing exclusively on the inner thoughts of the characters facilitates reading smoothly and quickly. Nonetheless, the several times i picked up the book to carry on reading after a break, necessitated some serious backtracking to get back into the story.
There are numerous delights in this book which i will leave to the reader to discover. But there is one that has caught my imagination and has been rattling around in my brain for the past year. It is the narrative of reincarnation. Now, on the one hand, the structure of Fawkes’s narrative corresponds to the common sense understanding of reincarnation - i.e. one incarnation follows another along a timeline that we accept is a linear progression from antiquity to our current point in time. The sequence of the 18 stories follows the dominant (if “Western”) understanding of human history: from hunterer-gatherer antiquity through early agricultural societies to “classical: and “Han” civilizations to medieval and Victorian and early and mid-20th Century contemporary civilization. But there is another aspect of the common sense understanding of reincarnation that is perhaps challenged. Given the dominance of the Hindu notion of reincarnation, (which includes karma, sadhana, debt) it is common for people to attach a “western” notion of ‘progress’ to the process - i.e. experience enough reincarnations and you will eventually achieve emancipatory enlightenment and be free of the process of reincarnation altogether. When we look at the 18 incarnations of Fawkes’s story, it is hard to see what “progress” the “soul” is experiencing. Each life seems equally filled with success and happiness and suffering - some moreso, some less. Some lives are distinctly shorter than others - one life cutting to black barely a quarter of the way through (however the ghost? disembodied soul? does carry on with some thoughts).
But here’s where the uniqueness of the book form allows for an interesting revelation. But first a bit of Einstein on time and some admiration for Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar.
Einstein, through his theory of relativity, furnished a scientific justification for a philosophical view of time that goes back to Spinoza, to St. Augustine, even to Parmenides—one that has been dubbed “eternalism.” Time, according to this view, belongs to the realm of appearance, not reality. The only objective way to see the universe is as God sees it: sub specie aeternitatis. We should all be like William Blake and say, “I see the past, present, and future, existing all at once/Before me.”
Now, here’s the thing: if past, present, and future co-exist and what we experience of time (its “appearance”) depends on our point of view, then our childhoods actually co-exist with our adult selves which co-exist with our senior selves - of course, from a certain point of view. This gives rise to some interesting new meanings of "inner child” as well as all those therapies that fancy themselves dealing with something that happened “in the past.” But i digress. As applied to One Soul this thinking gives rise to, what is for me, a very new perspective on reincarnation. Rather than see these eighteen lives as proceeding sequentially, like a series, from past to present, we can view them as happening simultaneously or in parallel. Imagine our soul dividing itself up into eighteen (or more or fewer) pieces/iterations and incarnating all-at-once (in an einsteinian sense) into all these lives. Whatever is being learned in each life is not being banked and applied (for good or ill) in the next life. The story of a soul is a story out of time, you might say. And the comic book form is wonderful for this for, indeed, the story does exist all at once, albeit the pages need to be turned or, as suggested above, the viewer merely adjusts their vantage. The simultaneity of the existence of the narrative (in book form) is perhaps a rough approximation of what Einstein was perhaps getting at in his theories of time.
Nolan’s Interstellar adds another remarkable piece to a discussion of time. (And if you’ve not seen it and would prefer to avoid spoilers, proceed at your own risk.) The climax of the film takes place in some kind of tesseract - a structure that includes the dimension of time and which allows one to navigate to different “locations” (coordinates) in time. As our hero Cooper figures out just what he is in he realizes he must find a specific point in time - a specific point in an infinity of points. And he realizes that his love for his daughter Murph is the key to successfully navigating this infinitude. Cooper simultaneously realizes that this fantastic structure was not built by aliens but by humans in the “future” who have learned to perceive time as a dimension and who can build with it. And the motive force of this building and of Cooper’s navigating of the tesseract to find the key moment (required for his relaying of crucial data to his daughter) is love.
And so with One Soul. As all the lives end and cut to black, one continues on for a few pages. It is as much of a climax as such a form of story could have. An aging singer takes the stage for one last performance and gives it her all. It seems the kind of performance Federico Garcia Lorca is describing in his essay on the duende and in which he describes an 80 year-old dancer:
Years ago, an eighty year old woman came first in a dance contest in Jerez de la Frontera, against lovely women and girls with liquid waists, merely by raising her arms, throwing back her head, and stamping with her foot on the floor: but in that crowd of Muses and angels with lovely forms and smiles, who could earn the prize but her moribund duende sweeping the earth with its wings made of rusty knives.
Such is the performance of this fading life. And as the singer reflects on her life and sinks, for the last time, into the comfort of an armchair, her final thought is “thank-you”. It is a poignant, bittersweet, and perfect ending to this fantastic narrative which begins with the book’s heartbreaking dedication: “To Dorian our beloved son, born and died March 13, 2010. In Memoriam.”