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Nil: A Land Beyond Belief
posted June 8, 2005
 

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Creator: James Turner
Publishing Information: SLG Publishing, 232 pages, $12.95
Ordering Numbers: 1593620209 (ISBN)

Next to the first volume of Cromartie High School, Nil: A Land Beyond Belief has to be the biggest surprise of all the comics I've read in 2005, not so much in comparable quality but just in finding a fresh voice working at the top of a game I didn't think I cared for.

One thing I have to say up front Nil has to be the among the best story values of any work released in the last couple of years. Two hundred pages at $12.95 is worth noting by itself, but James Turner works in such a fantastically dense style it feel like 500-600 by the time you're through. I hate to kick things off like that; I mean if this were 200 pages of garbage it wouldn't be worth buying. Yet the type of story told here is certainly worth noting considering the direction of the market and the fact this is at least for me unfamiliar work. If nothing else, this is a book you can try and for which you'll receive very good value like it or lump it, so perhaps that might lead more people to pick it up.

Perhaps the reason I've started so obtusely is for the life of me I really can't figure this book out. I think I'm about 80 percent there. I have a hunch that it's good, and super-promising, yet falls short of greatness due to so many good to excellent set pieces not quite coalescing into a work of larger effect. But it's only because parts of it are really good that potential greatness becomes a question. This is a fun book, entertaining and a pleasure to dig into. Nil: A Land Beyond Belief tells the story of an everyman stuck in a world where all of industrial and post-industrial society is satirized through exaggeration and making real-life obstacles out of intellectual abstractions. It kind of feels like a Victorian-tinged Floyd Farland, but with more illustrative effects than cinematic ones and a lot more business on the side. Turner is also further along than Ware was when he did that work in terms of the art style selected, although to be fair I'm pretty sure Ware was a fetus at that time. I can't think of another way to describe it: Shane Simmons' Biologic Show?

That art style, incidentally, is very peculiar; it's flat and elaborate. Some pages are crowded but the backgrounds in the anything but the landscapes is frequently detail-light. I can see certain readers rejecting the visual approach as not their thing, but it's hard to imagine it being done much more effectively. A lot of the fun in reading Nil is looking at all the enormously stupid and elaborate machines, the gaunt little horrible creatures tromping around in the background. And the set pieces are really good, too. Our man Nul goes for coffee, ends up in the army, is held under suspicion, and even tries romance; there is one particulary memorable scene where two demons try to pick up hookers in a bar.

The set pieces are crucial because if not played just right in terms of tone most of the scenes would be completely intolerable; they may still be for some readers who don't like the added jokes, the quick asides. Also, when I say that the book lacks cumulative power, the humor displayed is a big area where you can see that. The individual gags are often sharp, but they don't have resonance one scene to the next. The ultimate pay off is modest compared to the good work done throughout, and tempered a bit further by the obviousness of some jokes (a deconstruction ship named Derrida).

In the end, I think I'm going to have to go back and puzzle over this thing for a while. For now you should be alerted to its presence. Pick up a copy, and if its look or any of the jokes you see upon scanning a page or two appeal to you, take it home. It's a furious performance, odd and affecting and I'm dying to see more.