Monday, 19 April 2010

Review: The Signifiers #1, Michael Neno (self-published, 2010)


Do you remember the childhood feeling of picking up a comic simply because it looked cool, absolutely unconcerned about the plot being midway through its arc, and other such trivialities? If you remember that illicit sensation with the same degree of warm fondness as me, then Michael Neno's The Signifiers just might be the comic for you. 

Featuring the liquid-nitrogen equivalent of a cold opening, the first issue of the self-published serial throws readers in at the deep-end. When a book begins with three futuristic spacemen/ desert bandits turning a girl into a dog via energy beams that are shooting out of their chests, you know you’re in for a serious ride into the unknown. It's a necessary shock though; an anti-exposition warning shot that prepares the reader for the following 47 pages of bizarreness, which feature such characters as a bandage-faced rat man, translucent cereal-eating apparitions from the astral plane, a "heat-seeking dwarf" and, obviously, a rather-eloquent humanoid crocodile seeking to purchase an antique Ricky Martin CD.

Oh yeah, there's also a sinister thought-exacting dentist. 

Fun is definitely the order of the day in the comic, and Neno draws together his eclectic collection of influences to create some kind of 1960s /70s post-apocalyptic sci-fi world of flower-power futurism, supercharged hot-rods and  quasi-indecipherable beatnik lingo. Quite openly influenced by the silver age of American comics, Neno adopts a visual style that pays tribute to Jack Kirby, and his writing mirrors the unashamed all-action approach of that era's dialogue and action.

As stated by the creator when we interviewed him earlier this year, it was his adamant intention to create an all-consuming unfolding mystery that the reader has to uncover gradually. The Signifiers #1 fulfills his wish by offering essentially no concrete information to the reader other than introducing the characters themselves as well as a few concepts about the world they live in. This comic doesn't have a central mystery, so much as an absolute one. Listing the cinematic narrative styles of Luis Buñuel and David Lynch as influences, it isn't hard to understand that the confusion is intentional and, with this in mind, adds an extra layer to the unfolding action.

The narrative design of The Signifiers is paradoxical, and the fact that it is clearly not meant to be understood straight away is the same thing that makes it accessible. Much like reality itself, there’s no available way to get one's head around all the information given, let alone attempt to collate it. Once the reader learns to accept the lack of exposition and frenetic switching between characters and scenes, it’s difficult not to just sit back and enjoy the ride.

Du-Quann's sold on Amazon Marketplace before, obviously.

Reading The Signifiers is almost voyeuristic in a way, as the forced emotional detachment from the plot encourages the reader to take a more objective, inquisitorial position about the whole thing. At times, I couldn't help but wonder if there was a double-layer to the story's reality. Several (comparatively more) mundane locations are fleetingly mixed into this world of half-animals and sub-atomic laser beams, such as a dentists office (see above) all of which create a clash that, I felt, brings into question the true nature of the book.

Curiously enough, it's the most “normal” looking of the comic’s eclectic cast, an adolescent named Splash, that aroused my suspicion most. Shown sleeping in a fairly humdrum (certainly not the book's chief aesthetic) boy's bedroom more than once, this juxtaposition leads me to wonder if the world around him is a product of his imagination. Perhaps Splash is the Dorothy to this messed-up Oz? Perhaps not, but I'm eager to find out, especially considering the comic's awesomely mind-bending cliffhanger.

This is not the cliffhanger, rather a dance party taking place in the supplementary story "Landlark: The Heat-Seeking Dwarf" 

Worth reading exclusively for the deranged back-up story "Landlark: The Heat-Seeking Dwarf" (my personal highlight of the issue), The Signifiers is available to purchase from Mr. Neno's website (link below) and select comic stores today (if not in your local, be sure to badger them about it). Not strictly the debut of the strange and wonderful universe, interested parties are urged to also check out the comic's prequel of sorts, the Xeric Award-receiving Reactionary Tales to compliment their enjoyment of this throughly demented enigma of a comic book.


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