Editor’s Note: The following is a continuation of last week’s column, which can be read here.
The Last Days of an Immortal begins with a death, and a statement of epistemological uncertainty that resonates throughout the entire book.
The setting is like any number of perfect futures we’ve seen before, where the human form, in close-fitting and curiously androgynous dress, seems almost subservient to architecture, so total and outsized are the surroundings: harmonious yet impersonal, too stainless for our grubby habitation.
In this panel from the very next page, the victim pieces together the circumstances of his demise in what amounts to a trauma therapy session. For in this future, death has been conquered, circumscribed and circumvented: just another disruptive experience. In an idea now standard to far-future scenarios, “echoes” — infinite copies of the corporeal form, still subject to age and decay — can be produced, and memories, regularly backed up, decanted from one to the next.
As if to reinforce this happy mundanity, what first seemed murder soon turns out to be a misunderstanding between coworkers. In what’s meant as a show of respect, a member of a much physically stronger alien race accidentally crumples his more fragile human friend. The issue is one of “exocompatibility,” and the ensuing mediation is performed by Elijah, a high-ranking member of the “Philosophical Police.”
Of course, there are protocols in place to prevent this kind of accident, byzantine by-laws ensuring peace among species. Overseeing this largely utopian universe is a complex structure of contingent bodies: less the hale Federation of American leadership, more a European model of bureaucracy. We get a glimmer of this from the many appellations tossed about (“Union,” “Community”); from the presence of funded public art (sculptures tour sectors like comets); from the fact that Elijah’s lover Iseult is a social worker seen handling a domestic violence case. There is some underlying humanism here, absent from many more militaristic depictions of American-type governments: an acknowledgment of interdependence, and an emphasis on getting along. In this world, negotiation between species is the most important thing, the ongoing attempt to understand in the very way Nagel would say is impossible.
“Bat sonar, though clearly a form of perception, is not similar in its operation to any sense that we possess, and there is no reason to suppose that it is subjectively like anything we can experience or imagine…
Thus we describe bat sonar as a form of three-dimension forward perception; we believe that bats feel some versions of pain, fear, hunger, and lust, and that they have other more familiar types of perception besides sonar. But we believe that these experiences also have in each case a specific speculative character, which it is beyond our ability to conceive. And if there is conscious life elsewhere in the universe, it is likely that some of it will not be describable even in the most general experiential terms available to us.”
The authors acknowledge this ubiquitous difficulty in their choice of conflicts (which include first contact, ancient rivalry, and genocide), and in the space they give to detailed explanations of mores alien to our conceptual categories, as in this trial featuring a Zorak look-alike:
Elijah’s life consists almost solely of settling clashes between species. Hence the marriage of law and philosophy in his profession, for as therapy domesticates the terror of death, so arbitration acceptably banalizes xenophobia. It’s almost perverse, in a world where “morphowrestling” and sex in exotic bodies are common hobbies, that disposable, malleable forms do so little to stretch our minds around the unfamiliar. Nagel, in what he terms his “realism about the subjective domain in all its forms” (italics his), anticipates this: “one might also believe that there are facts which could not ever be represented or comprehended by human beings, even if the species lasted forever.”
He goes on to say that “the problem is not confined to exotic cases, however, for it exists between one person and another.” As a rhetorical move, this is like the end of the famous X-Files episode “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space,” in which writer Darin Morgan, having firmly established our distance from aliens, shifts in his stunning last line to our distance from each other:
“Then there are those who care not about extraterrestrials, searching for meaning in other human beings. Rare or lucky are those who find it.
For although we may not be alone in the universe, in our own separate ways on this planet, we are all… alone.”
From aliens to alienation… hardly a new metaphor, but one Immortal nevertheless plies well as it balances the plot business posed by actual aliens with the emotional through-line of Elijah’s interpersonal relations. In the world of Immortal, echoes are clones that not only extend life but allow multiple lives to be lived simultaneously. Echoes can be assimilated at any time, and when they are, the primary body receives their memories, occasionally at the cost of older ones. Prior to this perfect union, even echoes, divided by experience, bicker, kiss, make up, worry over, cuddle with each other.
One of the most contemporary aspects of Immortal is how Elijah can clone himself and still be overworked. Loneliness in Immortal is as obdurate, as absolute, as pitiless as death, and just as universal. We may no longer all die alone, but we each live alone, and life lasts forever.
Having looked at aliens, let’s move on to death. In Immortal, life is infinite, but memory is finite. Memory is the seat of loss, because things that vanish survive in memory, which itself vanishes. Menaces to memory are generally gentler than those to body or even soul, a question of volume and register; memory is said to decay or fade, a slow, subdued violence whose shocks time amortizes. Upon visiting Matthias, a formerly close friend he’s lost touch with, Elijah finds a nasty surprise: Matthias has not only chosen to die, he never invited Elijah to the funeral. In the only extant echo of Matthias, who has given himself two months left to tie up loose ends, Immortal smuggles in through technology that classic fantastical figure, the ghost. He is a literally fading figure, fainter of line and grayer of wash, more wavering and hesitant a presence than the clear-cut Elijah.
Elijah comes away less wounded by the tragedy of passing than that someone he once thought closer than a brother would give him the cold shoulder of eternity. If it seems the slights of life take center stage — sorrow and loneliness instead of fear and terror, mortification instead of la mort—well, death itself has been made slight.
Later, Elijah does attend a funeral for three of his Philosopher colleagues. A gala celebration on the Serengeti plain — the trio has opted to be torn apart by lions — the whole affair smacks of nothing so much as a heartfelt gathering of old hippies: Deprived of inevitability, death becomes a matter of procedure: bureaucracy, ritual, even a boutique frisson. Death is at best a glad choice, and at worst a memory glitch, a matter of a few lost hours. The scene itself is quite reticent, with a poetic gesture toward ancient terror:
Like many a SF story, Immortaloffers an immaculate future of marvels with a secular sparkle. There’s less angst over the afterlife when people go to it willingly. Is there Weirdness in a world where the traditional, metaphysical Beyond has been annexed? O brave new world, That has such people in’t! What rattles these masters of the universe?
It’s on an everyday level that the book most adeptly unsettles. Throughout, worldbuilding progresses with a steady stream of unexplained, unremarked future tech and customs in contexts of quotidian activity:
This impassive presentation helps naturalize even deliberate shockers:
This subtle but persistent de-familiarization pervades the art. Gwen de Bonneval cites as an influence Jean-Claude Forest, most famous for creating Barbarella, a visual reference evident in his psychedelic vegetation, some ‘60s fashion touches, and playful creature design.
In a now-famous section in Chapter 2 of Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud advances a few claims for icons:
I find it hard to judge the photo-accuracy of Bonneval’s backgrounds, having never seen the settings in question. But they are generally spare on earth and lush elsewhere, in keeping with a “future” or “alien” aesthetic — which is to say that they are realistic by some culturally recognizable, even consensual standard of futurity, or alien-ness. The fully realized world and reliable plotting encourage me to read this story according to the codes of realism.
It’s with characters that McCloud’s theory of universality rings hollow, even as his take on amplification rings true. Human forms are stylized, angular. The drastic simplification of expressions works with frequent use of long shot to keep us at a distance from these characters. When their feelings come into focus in a close-up — when a mere comma becomes a widened eye, an apostrophe a raised brow — the effect is more startling than endearing. The strangeness of this world lacquers every surface.
With aliens, the dilemma is similar to that of setting. We can’t know how photo-realistic these creatures are. In depicting them, Bonneval departs from convention (skinny elephants, walking onions) as often as he hews to it (giant insects, bewhiskered dragons). In the US, comics artists are often judged on their ability to render dynamism of line in action sequences (essential to superhero battles) and legibility of expression, but what emotion is being conveyed by this Jabba type?
or this embryonic tribble?
In one prominent case, the Ganedans are made deliberately more iconic by their cultural preference for costume.
The effect of iconicity is to distance us from these aliens rather than provoke identification
It is not realism that objectifies, that makes mysterious, that Others, but abstraction. And with aliens, the art takes a strong step toward asking to be read on the level of symbol.
Death and the Other may be tamed, suppressed for everyday purposes, and yet together, they provide the primary plot drive and the feeling of sadness, of inconclusive rue, that pervades the book on every level, from illustration to episode. Its blue-gray tones and sterile interiors exude an almost palpable mourning.
This was unexpectedly brought home to me during a reading Fabien Vehlmann did in late September at the artspace Machine Project, in L.A. The physical book wasn’t out yet, so he made a brief slideware presentation of selected panels, whiting out the speech balloons so he could read their contents to David Eng’s ambient accompaniment. He focused on four more-or-less self-contained segments, all alien encounters. In one, a six-panel page of Ganedans was looped, panel by panel, into animated sequence. Their dance seemed all the more ritualized for the held poses and rudimentary motion, like hieroglyphs brought to jolting life.
Another involved a case study and thought experiment that Elijah delivers as a lecture to a crowded classroom. The question: is it homicide or genocide? The event: Terran astronauts accidentally killed a creature that turned out to be “the only example of its species. In fact, the term ‘species’ does not apply, since it usually denotes a group of beings capable of reproducing.”
At this point, the image of the space amoeba dissolved into that of a city it had single-handedly built. The captions detached themselves entirely from image as disembodied voiceover. And like the words, I felt myself dissolved in the ethereal yet insistent music, borne aimless as a mote in the projector’s beam on a slow, inexorable zoom that finally settled on the tiny, lonely creature in the corner of the frame.
How was it this hybrid demonstration, neither quite film nor comic, invoking sound and movement yet still halting and contemplative, managed to isolate the book’s major theme? Why did loneliness, at that moment, seem palpable in space as the projector’s beam? Hal Duncan says, “I think from the very start, the pun underlying the term collapsed the meaning of slipstream into something defined not so much by content, process or effect but by a spatial metaphor of location.” Henry Jenkins speaks of SF as a travel narrative, in which movement through space, from setting to lovingly detailed setting, is as or more important than the usual causal narrative through time. Can genres develop new critical criteria by being thought of as spatial? Would the fantastic be beside (at every moment present, permeating, but only occasionally showing through), and the Weird beyond, and slipstream between (feeling the torque of conflicting forces)? How could these spatial properties be best enacted, brought alive, by specific media?
A day later, at the next reading, I watched, at once willing it to happen again but despairing that it would, having no faith but desire. Of course, much like an actual fantastical experience, it didn’t.
If there is a central storyline to Immortal, it is the conflict between the Alephs and the Ganedans, warring species sharing a planet. The former call themselves the “singing caverns” (Aleph 345 is a bureaucratic designation), and are “beings of pure vibration — intelligent waveforms… among the first intelligent lifeforms in the universe.” For some time now, they have been emanating an intense psychic anger that causes physical damage and threatens to provoke open war. The Ganedans, however, “have powerful political backing within the Union, so their problems are our problems.” The roots of the conflict lie shrouded in the mists of history, when the Ganedans were tribal nomads, and the Alephs still corporeal, taking the form of great sea monsters called The Nameless.
Sent to mediate, Elijah meets his death in exactly the same way as the Ganedan martyr of legend: in the belly of the beast, or rather a corporeal Aleph’s jaws. This brutal experience gives him a clue to the creature’s true nature, and a way to start the peace process.
I’m hard-pressed to find any biblical allusion in Elijah’s name (or any legendary one in Iseult’s); after all, his name remains unchanged from the French version, whereas the French for the prophet Elijah would be Élie. Elijah is described as too perfect, and hence intimidating, someone who tries too hard to be fair-minded, and to understand. In the end, the book embraces suicide: rather, openness to suicide, to forgetting, and letting go, all his previously unconfronted fears. Elijah voluntarily re-enters the Aleph’s mouth, and experiences a kind of ecstasy there, for the Aleph, he realizes, uses something like “gustatory communication” but “far more sophisticated… a kind of tactile telepathy.” The defeat of the drive to understand leads to understanding.
Is it Weird, then, in the end? No. Any book that ends with the following conversation
—Are you afraid?
—A little, yes… but it’s all right. I’m fine.
probably isn’t Weird. But does it strange? Certainly. Dare I say weirdstream? Along the way it’s given us a ride with many weird facets, intersections of SF and Weird, examinations of loneliness and Otherness.
Perhaps the difference, then, isn’t one of subject matter but of attitude to subject matter, of resolution. Immortal leaves the door of its ending ajar, but a warm breeze blows through that opening. There’s such a thing as lack of closure, and then, in the Weird, there’s abject failure. There’s such a thing as reconciliation, and in the Weird, there’s unnerving ambiguity. There’s loneliness and rue, such as we all feel in life, and isolation writ large, inescapable, on the level of Fate. As Denis Johnson writes in “Car Crash While Hitchhiking”:
“And therefore I looked down into the great pity of a person’s life on this earth. I don’t mean that we all end up dead, that’s not the great pity. I mean that he couldn’t tell me what he was dreaming, and I couldn’t tell him what was real.”
The divergent French and English covers encapsulate these different readings: a man at peace with a mysterious tentacular caress, and a man among his echoes, the man in the black future jumpsuit, lonely in a crowd.
The Last Days of an Immortal is a graphic novel by writer Fabien Vehlmann and artist Gwen de Bonneval. First published in 2010 by Futuropolis, it took the prize for Best Science Fiction Comic at Utopiales (the international science fiction convention in Nantes), and in 2011 was an official selection of the Angoulême International Comics Festival. The English version was released in October 2012 by Archaia.
Fabien Vehlmann is one of the most prolific and high-profile comics writers in France today. He was recently handed the reins to one of France’s most beloved and longest-running series, Spirou et Fantasio (begun in 1938 as a Tintin competitor). He has experimented with almost every genre, from humor and history to crime and fantasy, an eclecticism that has resulted in collaborations with many artists. His work available in English includes Green Manor with Denis Bodart (Cinebook), Isle of 100,000 Graves with Jason (Fantagraphics), and Seven Psychopaths with Sean Phillips (BOOM! Studios), as well as Jolies ténèbres with the duo Kerascoët, forthcoming from Drawn & Quarterly.
The equally prolific Gwen de Bonneval is active in all aspects of comics, from artist to writer to editor, for publishers big and small alike: Dargaud, Delcourt, Depuis, Milan, Sarbacane, Glénat, and Gallimard. In 2002, with his friends from L’Atelier du Coin (The Corner Studio), he launched Cosmic Capsule, a monthly comics magazine for young readers that helped usher in a generation of today’s top talents. He is currently involved with Professor Cyclops, a monthly comics magazine conceived expressly for the digital medium by a collective of artists and writers.