Grant Morrison and Chris Burnham, Nameless

NamelessNameless by Grant Morrison

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

But did Grant Morrison deserve my crack about Coldplay toward the end of my review of Greg Carpenter’s British Invasion? After being too pleased with myself for its cleverness, it occurred to me that I had not read a Morrison comic all the way through after All-Star Superman, which is about a decade old and the sentimentality of which I found grating, despite its other many virtues, especially its iconicism. When I saw Nameless, a work in the undersung genre of space horror, I decided to read it to find out if I had indeed been unjust to Morrison’s later career.

Of the events in Nameless, one character metafictionally exclaims, “It’s like the goddamn ‘Exorcist’ meets ‘Apollo 13’!” Even allowing that such a film has already been made—such that the line of dialogue should have run, “It’s like goddamn Event Horizon!”—that description aptly capture’s Nameless‘s mix of space adventure with unsettling and sometimes subliminal demonism. Unlike The Exorcist‘s ingenious and intense crypto-papist propaganda, though, Morrison’s book is not trying to make us consider a conversion or reconversion; the villain of Nameless is God, the God of monotheism, stranded in our universe as the prisoner of a long-ago galactic and interdimensional war, and accordingly psychopathic and the incitement of psychopathy in His worshippers. The graphic novel spins around a scene of murderous horror inspired by the Deity. The conceit of Nameless is something like the following: what if Lovecraft’s fiction describes not a cold mechanical materialistic universe, as it is often taken to do by the Rhode Islander’s admirers, but rather the universe as seen by traditional monotheism?

For readers keeping score in the great and largely one-sided Alan Moore vs. Grant Morrison feud, Nameless may be read as a furious riposte to Moore’s Neonomicon. In Moore’s notoriously hideous book, the weakness and squalor of humanity brings Lovecraft’s eldritch horrors into being; as in Rorschach’s famous soliloquy from Watchmen, it is us, not fate or the gods, who butchers the children and feeds them to the dogs. Nameless, by contrast, places the blame for Cthulhu—which is to say, those aspects of human experience for which Cthulhu is a metaphor—on the metaphysical forces that Moore sees as elaborations or avatars of human consciousness. “God made me do it,” says the murderous anti-hero near the book’s conclusion, and Morrison’s narrative design ensures that we read it that way. Morrison is, in a sense, both more and less humanistic than Moore, seeing humanity as kinder than the gods (or whatever universal forces the gods allegorize) but also less powerful than they are, whereas in Moore’s more traditional Romantic view, the gods are, as he says somewhere, “ourselves unfolded.”

A set of endnotes far more compelling than the actual graphic novel concludes Nameless. In them, Morrison explains the novel’s elaborate Tarot and Kaballah symbolism, its autobiographical and local Glaswegian roots, its debt to contemporary nihilistic metaphysics (Brassier and the ubiquitous Ligotti), and more. Morrison further explains an intention to dramatize the passing of the Son’s Aeon to that of the Daughter—a shift in cosmic consciousness wherein the feminine principle defeats the masculine, with the latter typified by monotheism’s insane Gnostic demiurge (AKA God) and His malevolent male worshippers, to initiate an era of peace and mysticism. Because I was educated by sometimes physically violent nuns and brought up in the suburbs by all those white conservative women we hear so much about every election year, I am unable to appreciate this neo-Victorian worldview that girls are made of sugar and spice and everything nice; and say what you will about contemporary feminism, especially in its popular or vernacular forms, but it is certainly a force devoted to extirpating the so-called feminine principle from the world, givens its advice to Lean In (i.e., project oneself phallically) and its elevation of such warmongering women (“phallic mothers,” the psychoanalysts call them) as Hillary Clinton to political authority. In short, I am not so unimaginative as to deny that there are psychic forces we might provisionally label “masculine” and “feminine,” but I also think the world is far more complex than such a philosophy as Morrison’s chivalric sexism can capture.

But what about Nameless itself? Morrison claims to have intended to write more of a poem or piece of music than a narrative, so the narrative is consequently fragmented and half hallucinated. Characters are undeveloped archetypes, and the book’s space-adventure plot is a red herring, a dream or psychic trip that merely symbolizes the actual content of the narrative, which is the conflict between Son/Daughter or Brother/Sister leading to the defeat of the threat posed by God and the subsequent apotheosis of the eternal feminine. This fact renders the whole middle of the book extraneous to the far more fascinating nightmare lyricism of the first and last chapters; the first, in particular, offers moving narration seemingly straight from Morrison’s psyche:

Sometimes you ask yourself, what’s real and what’s not these days? Way I see it, everything’s been fucked up since 2001 anyway. Since the towers came down—since the pylons fell on Trump 18 and Malkuth was gathered up into Yesod— My mum died just up the road at the Western.

This is all much better than a disavowed Event Horizon homage, and much closer to the ambition of producing comics as poetry. But if a poem is what Morrison wanted, why even bother with characters who never do anything or come to life as they go on a conventional action-adventure quest without any actual diegetic stakes? You can write this way about characters readers already accept as archetypes and about whom readers already have many thoughts and feelings—such as Superman and Batman—but not about characters we’re meeting for the first time. Is the veiled woman in this book anything at all other than Woman?

As for Chris Burnham’s art, its shagginess is effectively evocative of ’70s horror and French SF comics from Bernie Wrightson to Philippe Druillet, but such ink-heavy styles often look awkward against today’s computer coloring, with its relentlessly mimetic modeling and color gradients that seem to make black-spotting appear primitive or redundant. (This article applies to more artists than the one who is its ostensible topic, Frank Miller.) The grotesque imagery throughout is effectively discomforting, though probably best where most subtle. Somehow the image of an eel about to eat its own tail in a way suggestive of copulation is far more nauseating than the image of a man getting his face hammered off in an explosion of blood and bone.

All in all, Nameless is not Coldplay, but it probably capitulates too much to conventional SF/horror tropes and structures to come into its own. A book whose tacked-on didactic essay is more interesting to read than the main narrative suggests an author more interested in lecturing than dramatizing or even lyricizing. Nameless is an allegory whose universal meaning wholly subsumes and consumes its concrete plot and characters, the very elements that are all that could possibly make us care about the larger significance—and this is a literary lapse to which the occultist writer may be especially prone.

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