By: Jeff Lemire (story & art), José Villarrubia (colors)
The Story: Damn—where’s that Jazz Age English phrasebook?
The Review: Maybe my former students will disagree, but I see myself as a very compassionate sort of grader. Usually, if I sense a minimum of effort towards a decent product, I can figure out a way to give the result a pass. And if there’s some attempt to challenge oneself in there, I will really go out of my way to give the benefit of the doubt. That’s why, for all my criticisms of Lemire, I still very much admire the guy; he is definitely not afraid of thinking outside the box.
With his first issue, Lemire took on a big challenge in writing Nika and William’s parallel storylines from each cover then having them meet in the middle. It was a significant test of his abilities as a storyteller and artist, and by and large, he passed with flying colors. Here, he takes on a different, equally tricky obstacle in two characters who must interact without the help of their words. The first issue displayed Lemire’s foresight as a plotter; this issue makes demands on his grasp of character and human behavior.
For any of you who’s ever had to deal with someone who doesn’t speak your language, you’ll recognize much of the embarrassed awkwardness between our two heroes. It’s definitely a fun, sci-fi take on the typical meet-cute, with not only barriers of culture between Nika and William, but those of time and place as well. It’s not surprising, then, that a lot of their initial dialogue is not so much conversation but rather talking at each other.
But even when they’re not quite on the same page, they seem to operate on the same wavelength. Each can easily recognize the emotions of the other, which reveals a deep sense of empathy on both their parts. They might fail to grasp the substance of each other’s words, but they are quick to catch on to the intent, and you do feel a jolt of excitement during the brief moments when they make a complete connection: after Nika bloodies her knuckles punching a stubbornly unmoving door in frustration, William remarks wryly, “That’s quite the temper you have…”
As he begins to bandage her injury, Nika says, “Oh, thank you. I have a terrible temper. I’m sorry about that.”
No surprise, then, that it’s at this precise moment that each experiences a powerful feeling of déjà vu, both convinced that they’ve seen the other before. It could be a romantic cliché, but Lemire doesn’t seem the type to pull out that gimmick without some greater purpose than eliciting “Aww”’s from the reader. There is a serious problem at stake in this story, after all, and it only gets more serious by the end of the issue.
Fun as the communication barrier is, you hope Lemire breaks it down soon, because you don’t really want to spend the rest of the series reading dashes on every other line of dialogue. Certainly, that little snafu slows down an issue already severely limited in new information, as Nika and William attempt and fail to catch each other up to speed on their respective lives. It’s not totally clear that this particular obstacle is removed at the issue’s end, but at least we won’t have to worry about them rehashing old plot points any longer.
There are plenty of artists with far more superficially pleasing and attractive styles, but they can’t all convey the range of expression that Lemire does. Can you imagine David Finch drawing an embarrassed smile? Or Jim Lee conveying crankiness? And although in general, Lemire doesn’t care too much about prettiness in his work, he does have his rather outstanding moments, like that splash page of William and Nika staring at each other in a field of trillium, surrounded by jungle, mountain, and stars, as they both repeat the only word they can mutually recognize. It’s a deeply romantic moment, but dignified and understated, the romance generated as much by a perfect wash of rich colors (whether by Villarrubia or Lemire is impossible to tell), your eyes drawn to the shock of yellow and white on our protagonists’ heads.
Conclusion: Not exactly the most productive issue, plot-wise, but a powerful example of natural character writing. The art has to be accepted on its own terms, but once you do, it reveals surprising depths.
– Minhquan Nguyen
Some Musings: – Oh, hurrah—Clayton’s alive. It would’ve been a little cruel, having him tag along with William against his better judgment, only to be slain. Of course, the story’s still young.