Many fans of The Obscure Cities (which I introduced here) will tell you that the first volume, The Walls of Samaris, first collected in 1983, represents a freshman effort, despite the acclaim it’s won.
The book’s writer, Benoît Peeters, shares this view. In his afterword to the second edition, entitled “Return to Samaris” (Retour à Samaris), he writes frankly that the book “was our first collaboration and my first as a comic-book writer. The book was created in a permanent enthusiasm, an excitement of every instant that could not avoid, it seems to us, some blind spots.” Despite making some modifications for the 1988 second edition, Peeters writes that The Walls of Samaris remains “a book that continues to leave us with more than a little remorse, a book that, periodically, we begin to dream of redoing.” Although he finds its main theme “still [...] exhilirating,” he says they “only very partially developed” it.
Schuiten is right in his more specific criticisms, which we’ll mention later, and he doesn’t mention several criticisms I might add. The Walls of Samaris is a freshman effort. But what a freshman effort — one filled with several powerful scenes as well as subtle, lovely touches! Its concision, at a mere 46 pages, may not give its ideas enough room to be fully explored, but those ideas remain brilliant. And this same concision result in a staggeringly high rate of memorable images and ideas per page, as well as a text that suggests more than it spells out. Its flaws are more noticeable because of the volumes that followed in the series, especially the masterpiece that came next. But The Walls of Samaris would mark the high point of all but the very best comic-book writers or artists, not only in France but in America and the world, and it compares favorably with the freshman efforts of still more. And while its successor may have eclipsed it, it’s still better than several that followed. It is a masterpiece, just not as great of one as some others.
As Peeters himself notes, Schuiten and his complaints ultimately don’t matter: “To believe several readers, something of the initial impetus seems, all the same, to have made it into this book.” It is all too easy for the creators to see how far the final product fell from its profound ambitions. Readers may notice the same flaws, or different ones, but what stays with them most isn’t the failings but the resounding, memorable successes. And with such vaulted ambition, to put it in architectural terms, one can fall short in significant ways and still produce a masterpiece.
The Opening Sequence
The Walls of Samaris demonstrates François Schuiten’s penchant for architecture immediately, beginning with three pages on which the images do little to advance the plot. Instead, the narrator’s captions are juxtaposed with images of the city, which we soon find out is named Xhystos and has a distinct art deco flair.
In his afterword, Peeters writes that the city’s style isn’t “real art nouveau, which Victor Horta and some others invented at the end of the last century: that style didn’t have time to develop; it was able to give birth to some isolated constructions, lost in urban contexts without a relationship to them.” At Xhystos, art nouveau would have continued and been given “the opportunity… to extend to an entire city.” Using not only existing buildings but “plans for future cities designed by the architects of 1900,” Schuiten and Peeters conceived of Xhystos as “a Brussels entirely reinvented by someone like Horta.”
The narrator, whom we soon learn is named Franz, begins ominously: “They came to find me one morning!” (All translations are my own.) These men, who have been sent by “the council,” tell Franz that he’s the most qualified to fulfill a mission to report on the city of Samaris. Such a mission is necessitated by the ambiguous fact that “the rumor had endured only too long,” although the men assure Franz that this rumor lacks “foundation” and is only the result of “the distance [between the two cities], the difficulty of communication, and the totally understandable delay of the last travelers who left in that direction.” Franz doesn’t explain what this rumor is, however, which only adds to the ominous mystery.
The mission will be ”long but… more or less without danger.” Franz will be paid handsomely and is promised “the order of the Grand Commander and perhaps even a seat on the council” upon his return. It sounds like a grand opportunity, and one of the men says, “In your place, I wouldn’t hesitate for an instant.”
Franz agrees, and he’s led to an odd bureaucratic room to sign the appropriate documents. The bureaucrats sit at desks at the top of stairs, as if it emphasize their power. The men who have convinced him to perform this mission quickly abandon him there, and he spends a half hour signing the documents, which he says are irreversible.
What’s most amazing about all of this, besides Schuiten’s artwork, is how ambiguous the narrative permits itself to be. We know virtually nothing about Xhystos, outside of its towering and beautiful appearance, plus the fact that it has a council (which we may presume rules the city). We know almost nothing about Samaris, except that a rumor has been circulating about the city for some time, and it doesn’t seem like anyone comes back from the place. We don’t even know much about the main character, who hasn’t even been named at this point.
The effect is very much like we have been suddenly immersed in a foreign culture without a guide. Thus, Franz doesn’t explain the rumor about Samaris, which we presume that he knows and which he probably presumes that we know as well. While realistic, this sense of immersion into an unknown culture can certainly be confusing (an effect compounded if the reader doesn’t know French or has a poor translation). But it’s also fascinating: it’s hard not to begin rereading, even this early into the story, looking for clues, parsing sentences for additional meaning. Schuiten certainly helps us along, encouraging us to slow down and appreciate the artwork, which in turn allows us to read slowly and thoughtfully, engaging in the mystery.
Yet for all we don’t know about it, we’re already getting a feel for Xhystos and for Franz, and our attention to detail pays off. No one says it’s a city defined by bureaucracy, despite its cleanly glories, but the reader can’t help but begin to get that sense, as Franz signs forms. There’s a vaguely authoritarian tenor to this bureaucracy, suggested by the men promising Franz “the order of the Grand Commander.” This is also suggested by the notion of a council that can send men to recruit someone, reassuring him with platitudes and promises, yet offering little in the way of facts. This bureaucratic, vaguely authoritarian air seems to have infected the characters as well, and we see this in the fact that the men who recruited him abandon Franz immediately, once he’s before the functionary who has the appropriate paperwork.
(Peeters, in his afterword, describes Xhystos as he conceived of it as “calm and a little fatigued, almost maternal in its enveloping power,” which suggests a bureaucratic state with a long history that organizes the area around it. This is essentially what made it into the printed book, even if most of it is only hinted.)
Franz seems part of his city’s bureaucracy. Though we don’t know what qualifies him for this mission, his dress is formal, although weird to our contemporary sensibilities. His narration has a certain poetry to it, fond of ne… que expressions (to signify “only”), but it’s quite formal, arguably slightly stilted. He even carries himself in a stilted, formal manner.
This is the level of careful, considered reading that The Walls of Samaris demands of the reader, and recognizing this only encourages that reader to slow down and think further.
But the narrative is even more aggressively ambiguous, or mysterious, than this. Because on the bottom of page two and the top of page three, while Franz is narrating but before we’ve met him, we meet three men in formal clothes who are waiting for a trolley car at an art deco station. We may be forgiven for thinking that one of these men must be the narrator. Surely, that’s how virtually any other comic book would proceed. Instead, the brief scene with these three men ends, and the “camera” heads upward before introducing Franz and his interlocutors, who are wearing different clothes and clearly are not the same men.
To make this situation even odder, in the four panels with these three men at the trolley station, we never see their faces. This suggests that they might not be important characters, let alone the still unseeen narrator — which proves to be true. So why are they here at all? Presumably, their dialogue must illuminate the mystery of the main narrative in some way. But that dialogue is even more ambiguous than the narration, which continues through these panels, as if inviting the reader to find connections between the two.
One man says, “It’s now been two years… / They are hiding something from us, it’s certain / …I’ve always thought that’s the source of our malaise.” But the most interesting panel is the final one in this four-panel sequence. It alone has no narrative caption, and in it, one of the three men says, “They’re lying to us. They seek only to trick us.”
There’s zero indication what happened two years before, nor who this “they” are, although these three men presumably know these facts. They do not, presumably, know what’s being hidden. But the vague sense of something hidden reinforces the reader’s suspicions about the reassurances, given in Franz’s accompanying narration, that there’s nothing to the rumor about Samaris. After all, this book is called The Walls of Samaris.
“The source of our malaise” isn’t identified here, and the ellipsis at the start of that word balloon, the first on page three, even invites the idea that we’ve missed some of the dialogue, that we’re not being given the entire conversation. The simplest explanation is that the character is referring to whatever happened two years ago. But it occurs directly under the largest caption about the rumor surrounding Samaris, so it’s hard not to see a connection, as if the dialogue is commenting on the captions (although we soon learn that the narrator isn’t present). The French in that word balloon is ambiguous and could equally be translated as “it’s from there that our malaise came.”
It’s also not clear whether the three men are talking about something personal that happened two years ago, or whether their “our” refers more generally to the city of Xhystos. In either case, their “malaise” (literally ”our ennuis” in the original) reinforces the bureaucratic feeling of the city, even if these three characters are only talking about themselves.
Did I mention there’s a steep learning curve on this one?
But again, this occurs earlier, before we’ve even met Franz. As the story continues, having signed the documents, Franz wanders to the Stork Club, where he meets some friends. They’re aghast at what he’s done, and they tell him he will “never return.” To support this, one friend cites how Mark and Clara also left on a voyage, presumably never to return. “And Pierre, one year later,” the friend continues. And “there have been plenty of others, lots more than we think…” It’s not clear that these past voyagers have departed for Samaris, or even in that direction, but they underline the sense of menace.
Hearing this, Franz narrates that he “could barely remember Pierre and Mark” but recalls Clara because she was the younger sister of Anna, whom we soon learn is his girlfriend. Uncharacteristically upset, Franz goes to Anna and explains what he’s agreed to do. She says, “You won’t come back, and you know it. You too are falling into their machinations.” Her “their” might refer to the authorities who approached Franz to take this mission — and through them, the council. The language again hints at authoritarian overtones to the city (“machinations”), as well as suggesting that Franz’s motives in accepting the offer may be more than simple naïveté.
“Don’t count on me to wait forever,” she says. “Tonight, Franz, is the last night we’ll spend together.” An upset Franz sits with her, and she unbuttons her dress, then leads him to bed.
Afterwards, he rises and goes to the terrace, from which he looks down on the city. He narrates: “Night had fallen. I watched Xhystos again, but it was already Samaris I thought I was perceiving. I understood that I had already accustomed myself to the idea of leaving.”
This suggests that there was something to Anna’s statement “You won’t come back, and you know it.” Franz might be stilted, but only in response to the bureaucratic, quasi-authoritarian malaise of Xhystos. He hesitated to accept the mission, true, but he must know the rumor about Samaris and that others have left Xhystos, never to return. There’s something restless in Franz that made him accept this mission, something that he didn’t understand about himself until after he’d already accepted, as he stood on the terrace.
Journey to Samaris
The next page begins a few days later, as Franz departs by trolley. It’s the only abrupt narrative jump left over from the serialization of the story in the magazine (À Suivre), #46-49, and it serves to separate the first nine pages from everything that follows, which flows together more seamlessly. In his afterword, Peeters writes that “the beginning of the book is for us the most successful portion. The fascination with distant Samaris, the difficulty in leaving Xhystos, Franz’s melancholy, all this still touches us.”
Anna has refused to see Franz off, but his friends from the Stork Club have apparently resigned themselves to his decision. Franz mentions Anna’s absence only in passing, which we take to be an indication of the superficiality of their relationship, in this bureaucratic, rather emotionless city, rather than any indication of a failure on the part of Franz.
On the trolley, a stranger tells Franz, “You’re right to leave. It’s suffocating in Xhystos.” This is the firmest statement yet that Xhystos has a bureaucratic, stilted air to it. The stranger presumes something about Franz that Franz himself only discovered, in more uncertain terms, shortly before on the terrace. Reinforcing that the stranger is right, the two apparently talk together until the end of the line.
There, Franz must continue beyond the city by train. Reinforcing the sense of bureaucracy, he must present his papers at a counter before boarding. The train travels through what looks like a wasteland, populated by the metallic skeletons of structures that no longer exist. Franz narrates that the train must travel fast to prevent raiding by pirates, although no pirates attack.
What follows is an overly long sequence depicting the rest of the voyage to Samaris, but it’s necessary so that the city doesn’t feel like it’s a hop, skip, and a jump away from Xhystos. While a bit clunky, the sequence also allows Peeters and Schuiten to depict their first exotic modes of transportation, which would later become a hallmark of the series.
Arriving at a way station, Franz waits until the next morning for a (propeller-powered) plane (called an “altiplane”) to depart. After eight days in the plane, Franz reaches a jungle town called Trahmer. There, he must convince someone to take him to Samaris, but the first two refuse. The third accepts, and they take off in a smaller plane (called an aérophèle), which looks like a bizarre glider.
After several weeks, Franz spots the walls of Samaris. He’s shocked when he asks if they’re close and is told they’re still 12 days away. The walls are apparently that high.
Franz narrates, “Each hour we advanced towards her, Samaris seemed to distance herself from us,” which further suggests Franz’s wanderlust. Samaris doesn’t only become feminine here, but a sort of erotic dancer, teasing and distancing, tantalizing but withholding her secrets. It’s a pattern that holds true both in Franz’s mind and in the narrative.
The plane lands at a shore outside of Samaris, where Franz finds barks that apparently run along rope lines into the city. This portion of the voyage still takes two days.
Arriving in Samaris, Franz narrates: “Different architectural styles seemed to overlap, as if the city had conserved some traces of all the civilizations she had sheltered.” In his afterword, Peeters confirms this blending of styles, calling his and Schuiten’s sources “multiple and heterogeneous.” But, he says, whereas Xhystos is northern, Samaris sunny; Xhystos is defined by its use of glass, Samaris by its opaqueness.
Franz soon finds a hotel, where the other guests stare at him, as if Samaris doesn’t get many visitors. The mystery only deepens when he asks the hotel manager, “Is this the only hotel in Samaris?” The hotel manager replies, “Why would you want there to be another? Does this one not satisfy you?”
Franz apologizes and takes a room. Inside, the hotel manager explains, “Don’t be surprised by the windows. We had to seal them because of the humidity.” Franz then asks about the whooshing sound that he’s been hearing since his arrival. “What sound, sir? I don’t hear any sound.” In narration, Franz notes that the sound then stopped, as if on cue. In his polite, bureaucratic way, he apologizes again.
Franz stashes his belongings and quickly takes to the street, another sign of his wanderlust. Interestingly, he’s now in the position the reader was in, back in Xhystos: being in an unknown and mysterious city, with an unknown culture and history that he doesn’t understand.
Entering a door, he finds an expansive room in which men in suits play cards. “It’s your turn to deal,” says one.
He spots a woman, alone at a table. She looks like Clara, Anna’s younger sister who had left Xhystos. Yet when he talks with her, she says she doesn’t know “any city by that name.” She then quickly excuses herself, saying, “I must go back inside.” She departs, and the men playing cards also get up to leave, one saying, “Until tomorrow. At the same time.”
A New Status Quo
Days pass. Franz records his daily observations each night, including that he has already grown “accustomed to the whooshing sound that had struck me so strongly during the first hours of my stay.” Continuing his sexualized description of Samaris, he narrates that “the city seemed to reveal herself only to the voyager who knew to take his time.”
Franz finds the city full of surprises: “I could have sworn that I had never seen the stairway or the alley that, all at once, imposed itself incontrovertibly upon me.”
But while the city is surprising, it’s also strangely repetitious. He feels as if he’s passing the same architectural elements over and over, although he knows that each must have different details.
As days turn into weeks, Franz is overcome by a sense of monotony, of repetition. He feels a “sense of malaise” that seems to echo the ennui associated with Xhystos. Samaris has not solved Franz’s wanderlust, or at least his boredom, despite retaining its mystery.
Among the mysteries Franz can’t solve is why he never sees children in the city; it’s likely only here that the reader notices no children have been depicted. In fact, Samaris seems sparsely populated, and the lack of children helps make Samaris seem as sterile as Xhystos.
Franz also asks himself, “Why were so many doors walled up? / Why was there nothing behind the shutters that I brusquely opened?”
Franz meets Clara daily, where he first met her. He didn’t call her by name then, although she now responds to it, which makes her claim not to know Xhystos all the more confusing. We don’t hear their conversations, but they don’t seem to ever leave the room in which they met. Nor do they kiss. Over an image of the couple talking, Franz narrates that he’s repeating “the same beginnings of conversation,” suggesting that his dialogue with Clara is superficial. Their interaction seems stilted, as if holding something back (which they both certainly are).
Each day, Carla and Franz talk until, at about the same time of day, she announces that she must goes back inside. Is she, perhaps, a prostitute, or somehow otherwise “owned” by the establishment? It’s not clear, although neither seem to make any sexual or emotional advance. If Clara is the personification of Samaris, which has already been sexualized, Franz seems to be getting nowhere with either.
Even the card players in the room are monotonous. One repeats, “It’s your turn to deal,” echoing the scene in which Franz first met Carla. It’s a delightful but subtle touch. Cards might be intrinsically repetitive, but the repetition underlines the city’s sense of lethargy. And if we think about it, we may notice that, along with the city having no visible children, no one seems to be doing any work at all, outside of the hotel manager, who apparently has no staff and certainly fears no competition.
All of this description of Franz’s stay in Samaris actually unfolds over several pages, vaguely (but not totally successfully) reflecting the nature of his journal entries. During this time, only two significant events occur.
One night, returning to his hotel room, Franz finds the hotel manager in his room, seated at his table. “He rose and left without saying a word to me,” Franz narrates.
This odd event in limited to a single panel, subsumed within the description of this monotonous yet strange city.
The second event gets a full page and occurs after Franz has been in Samaris nearly three weeks. Having arrived at no conclusions about the bizarre city, he decides to go see the city’s governor, who agrees to an interview. During it, Franz asks about the swirling, circular engraving behind the governor. It’s “the emblem of our city,” the governor explains. “The sundew, a carnivorous plant that, they say, used to flourish in this region.”
Asked about the voyagers who left Xhystos, the governor explains that “last winter was particularly hard”; jackals and wolves returned to the surrounding forests, and bands of thieves roamed the countryside. ”Alas, your friends surely could not have reached Samaris,” the governor says. But Franz observes that his message is undermined by “the tone of his voice, something a little mechanical in his mannerisms,” which suggests to Franz that the governor is subtly hinting that Franz should stay in the city and continue his inquiry.
Doing so, Franz soon feels trapped. “Sometimes,” he narrates, “I had the suspicion — absurd, of course, that this mysterious city was conceived to trap those who ventured here — a perverse architecture designed to confound the voyager.” With time, he feels “a sort of torpor that I attributed to the climate… / I began to resemble the other inhabitants of Samaris, each day promenading, half lethargically, the same little streets.”
Finally, he decides to leave Samaris, rationalizing, “my stay could not be prolonged eternally” — although we suspect some survival mechanism may have kicked in, triggering a fight-or-flight response. Since there is no one to fight, he chooses to flee. But he intends “to tempt [Carla] to come with me.”
He confronts her, speaking as, we presume, he never has before: “I’ve had enough! Enough of these gestures, always the same, of these phrases that repeat themselves, of these absurd meetings.” He does indeed sound like he’s reached a breaking point, and his emotionalism contrasts starkly with the politeness and repression that he’s otherwise shown. (His wanderlust has only been hinted at.)
She coldly tells him that “the atmosphere of Samaris” isn’t for him and that he should leave immediately, “before it’s too late.”
Franz makes his move, reaching out as if to caress her shoulder, saying he “won’t go alone” and that she has “nothing in common” with “these people.” He’s suave enough, but he’s sweating, suggesting not only his nervousness but his deep underlying frustration.
She rejects him, saying only that she “can’t. It’s impossible.”
Demanding an explanation, a frustrated, sweating Franz grabs her. “No,” she cries, backing into the wall, and his hands tear the side of her dress. “Don’t touch me,” she says, and he steps back, composing himself while others stand close by, seeming ready to intervene.
It’s an odd sequence in many ways. On the most obvious level, the conflict, however brief, constitutes physical violence against a woman. Because he has feelings for her and she poses no threat, the scene feels like one of domestic violence. To give the protagonist such a scene feels like a radical gesture. It may be the first time he has touched her. True to incidents of domestic violence, Franz’s assertion of physical control occurs precisely at the point in which he feels the least control, unable to get her to do what he want, unable to win with words, and unable even to get a satisfactory explanation out of her. This certainly underlines how frustrated Franz has become, suggesting the depth of the emotion he hides beneath his propriety.
The sequence is also odd structurally. In these panels, Carla speaks without word balloons, the only time anyone does so in the entire story. Her protested “no” seems to emerge from her like a sound effect, as if it’s too raw and automatic to count as speech. “Don’t touch me” is written in smaller lettering but also lacks a word balloon, as if it’s more muted but also somehow primal. Both bits of dialogue are rendered in a slightly wavy line, suggesting how upset she is.
The panel in which her dress tears is also odd. Franz seems deranged, and his hand is certainly in position to grip her side. But it looks as if only a few fingers are actually touching her dress as it rips, giving the appearance that it tears easily. And the accompanying sound effect, “CRA,” isn’t the sound of tearing that we’d expect.
It’s hard to read Franz’s expression afterwards. He seems suddenly calmer, and we’re at first inclined to think that he’s recoiled from his own violence, causing his polite personality to reassert itself, especially in the presence of others with eyes set on him. “It’s nothing, leave it!” he tells the crowd as Carla cups her left breast, which has been exposed by the rip. “It was only a game,” he adds.
Carla seems oddly compassionate, as if her fear of what will happen to him, should he stay, overwhelms any rage she may feel over his actions. “Go home now,” she says, “I beg of you…”
And he does — though only back to his hotel, not to Xhystos. Although he recognizes “the violence” of his actions, he narrates that “this brusque moment had revealed to me more than weeks of patience.” Perhaps what we initially read as Franz recoiling at his behavior, under the gaze of others, was actually him having a revelation, one connected to the strange way in which the violent sequence was depicted. But like the rumor in Xhystos about Samaris, Franz does not share his observation with us.
“I decided not to sleep that night,” Franz narrates. “If I stayed awake, perhaps I would succeed at piercing the secret of Samaris.” How Franz guesses this is unclear, since we don’t know what observation he made, but because it’s tied to Clara, we may guess that it has to do with how she always leaves at the same time for the night. Of course, his language of “piercing the secret of Samaris” continues the eroticization of the city, and it’s appropriate that this renewed vigor for doing so should come after his love interest rejects him.
The Walls of Samaris
As Franz lies awake in bed, he narrates how “the noise” to which he had become “habituated” “seemed to me to be amplified.” It adjusts so that it sounds like “a sort of murmur that seemed to come from a neighboring room.”
That noise, a version of the sound he heard upon first entering Samaris, is for the first time represented as a sound effect, running in broken form across each panel as Franz investigates.
He knocks on a neighboring room, then announces, “Open, or I force the door!” He rams into it with his shoulder, and the door seems to give way, but not in the way we’d expect. It splinters, breaking entirely too much, accompanied by a “CRAA” sound effect. The next panel completes the sound effect: “RAACK,” as not only the door gives way, but the adjacent wall too.
Standing at the gap in the wall, Franz sees that there’s nothing on the other side. It’s a void of scaffolding, of metal supports to hold up the wall. There’s nothing more: only an illusion of a hotel with many rooms, when in fact the only room was Franz’s own. It rests on stilts, alone against a flat wall.
“The hotel was only a lure,” narrates Franz, “designed only for my surveillance… This explained the strange attitude of the hotel manager and the absence of other travelers.” Presumably, Franz is alluding to the hotel manager being in his room, although his observation could also apply to the apparent lack of any other hotels. By “other travelers,” Franz must mean other hotel guests, since we saw, upon his arrival there, other men sitting at tables in the lobby. But his phrasing also recalls the disappearance of others who left Samaris.
This also explains why the windows of the hotel room were boarded up: they would have shown the empty space beyond them, and we even see the exterior of one of these windows on the outside of Franz’s hotel room.
It’s not entirely clear what caused the “murmur” Franz heard from the adjacent room, since he’s staring out into a virtual void. But the one hotel room does look as if it could slide back and forth along the wall, and there seem to be pulleys attached to the hotel room that might allow it to slide up and down as well. In other words, this one room might be able to take the place of any room in the hotel, although all the rooms would be the same. This might even provide an alternative explanation, one not mutually exclusive with spying, for the hotel manager’s presence in Franz’s room: the hotel manager had moved with the room.
I’m perfectly willing to concede that, while a cool idea, this is almost assuredly a misreading, because the metal braces that support the hotel wall, as depicted, would not permit up and down movement. In addition, the doors to the other rooms appear to be part of the wall itself, possessing a doorknob but unable to actually open. But somehow, I cannot help but make this misreading, or at least see its potential, each time I reach this moment in the text.
It is the climactic moment of the story, in which everything changes. It’s also Franz’s second act of violence, one closely tied to his first. In both cases, the material he struck or grabbed — Carla’s dress, the door — proved more fragile than expected. The “RAACK” here actually completes not only the portion of that sound effect in the previous panel but also the strange sound effect that accompanied the ripping of Carla’s dress. And of course, Carla has been intimately tied to the city all along, one being a love interest and the other characterized sexually, both with secrets. Franz assaulted Carla, but he has managed to penetrate the secrets of Samaris by force.
It would be easy to advance a feminist interpretation here, because his insight into Samaris comes from his assault on Clara, which suggests that domestic violence has intellectual benefits. In such a reading, Franz’s impotence with Clara leads to him symbolically raping the female Samaris, its secrets being the equivalent of Clara’s sex.
These are important overtones to point out, but cities (like nations) have often been personified as female, and male sexuality has often been linked with male intellectualism. Thus, the frustrating investigation by a lone male voyager into the secrets of a mysterious, alluring city carries inevitable sexual overtones — which this story poetically exploits, often successfully. The story also depicts Franz’s violence realistically, without glorifying it. His assault on Clara says less about Franz’s misogyny and more about a character who years for more yet, despite escaping to Samaris, finds no success and finally explodes. This doesn’t pardon Franz, but it does illustrate the dangers of repression, like talking to a girl day after day without mentioning one’s feelings.
After his revelation that the hotel is an illusion, Franz climbs up the outside of the hotel wall to get a better view. What he sees is staggering: the entire city is made up of false façades, not unlike the interior of the hotel. They’re on a complicated system of tracks, allowing them to move into position as he walked, which explains why he felt that the buildings were repeating themselves, as well as how they could seem to change. The entire city is an optical illusion, like a film set. It even has spotlights, positioned high above the phony buildings.
“For the first time,” Franz narrates, “I really saw Samaris… I understood that during all these weeks, the city had only existed for me.” He calls the city a “moving labyrinth.”
The title of the album doesn’t only refer to the city enormous walls, which Franz saw in the distance and thought were close, thus making them symbolically representative of the city’s erotic dance with Franz, refusing to give up her mysteries. The eponymous walls also refer to these façades, these moving walls that secretly represent the whole of Samaris. The city’s secret is that it is no city at all; it is mostly a void, a projection of a city. Samaris is those walls.
It’s one of those “everything you know is wrong” twists, although it was published a years before the similar maneuver Alan Moore performed in his second issue of Swamp Thing and almost two decades before such plot twists became popular in Hollywood with films like The Matrix.
It also isn’t completely convincing. What we see of the city’s inner machinery doesn’t account for how buildings could be move flush with one another. If we’re inclined to nitpick, we may even wonder how Franz didn’t notice those movie studio lights, high atop the buildings. It’s the idea of an entire city as an optical illusion that’s most resonant, recalling how much our eyes and brains deceive us.
Franz walking along the top of this false city looks like a mind-bending image straight out of Little Nemo in Slumberland.
As he does, the city begins to shift, accompanied by the same sound effect used earlier. Franz stumbles, grabbing hold of a wall and causing it to topple into another. The façades begin to tumble like dominoes, the city seems to respond in “panic. In an instant, all the walls began to move.” Franz races through this collapsing, moving landscape. It seems as if the city may even be trying to block his path, although this isn’t entirely clear.
The fragility of these walls, in toppling so easily, echoes the earlier fragility of Clara’s clothes and of the hotel wall. Despite all of Franz’s polite investigations, the illusion of Samaris is actually easily punctured. Implicitly, it depends upon the propriety of the city’s visitors, which leads into the stupor into which it had begun to lull Franz.
Still trying to understand the city, Franz heads towards the source of the sound the city’s been making. He stumbles across what looks like a flat figure of a man, himself only a façade, an optical illusion. Beyond, in rows of open crates, he finds others, who appear more three-dimensional. He recognizes at least some of them, calling them “only simulacra.”
This helps explain the repetitive nature of the city’s inhabitants, how Franz has had the same conversations over and over. Suddenly, the repeated lines of the card players take on a whole new meaning, becoming an indication that the people themselves were false.
Franz thinks he sees Carla in one of the boxes. (It looks like her, but her head is cropped by the bottom of the panel.) In his enthusiasm to get to her, he stumbles, tumbling into a void, where he becomes entangled with wires and lands, unconscious, in some lower level.
When he awakes, he finds himself in “the center of Samaris,” surrounded by massive gears. The noise around him is louder than he has ever heard it, and he realizes that the machinery that operates the city is hydraulic — a technology known (in our world) to the ancient Greeks, now used routinely to move tons.
He finds “a sort of altar” with a large book on it. Each page we are shown has the a swirling circular design upon it, like the engraving behind the city’s governor, which he called “the sundew, a carnivorous plant that, they say, used to flourish in this region.” It reads:
Born like the plant, the city will expand like the plant, and no impurity will come to taint her. She will feed on those she captures. / Samaris will be for all time, and for all time she may persist, like the water that each day returns. / She will seize the images of those she captures, and she will make them her images. / Always the same and always different, she will endure for all eternity. / Day after day, she will extend her roots further.
Franz narrates that “the text was obscure, uselessly encumbered by metaphors. I thought I understood that, to survive, Samaris frequently renewed her appearance, capturing the forms of the voyagers she had attracted.” “What gibberish!” he exclaims out loud, but he tears out a page to take with him.
He sets about escaping, leaving unanswered questions such as who built Samaris or how long it has existed. The only way out is through a water pipe, presumably funneling water to power the city’s hydraulics. The water level has fallen, allowing him to crawl through the pipe. He does so for hours, fearing that the water could rise again at any instant and drown him. He finally emerges and looks back on Samaris as it truly is.
Franz feels relieved. “It felt like I had definitively left the orbit of Samaris,” he narrates, “like I had escaped the power of her attraction. I again had the impression of being free.”
Return to Xhystos
Franz then begins the long walk back to Xhystos, over mostly desert landscape that had been long and arduous the first time around, even using vehicles. Curiously, he follows decaying elevated roads, which weren’t shown on the first journey. He signals unsuccessfully to a plane that apparently doesn’t see him. He narrates, “My sleep was agitated by strange nightmares. Sometimes, I seemed to hear pursuers, but the noise would vanish as suddenly as it had come.” But he is possessed by “the importance of my mission [...] Xhystos… Xhystos must be saved.”
At last, he arrives at Xhystos. But he’s left his papers behind, presumably in his hotel room, and the guards at the city gate take him for a (dirty) suburbanite, at first refusing to let him in. They relent, although one speculates that he’s a drunkard.
He has “the impression of no longer recognizing anything.” He narrates that he’s only been gone “a few months,” but “the city seemed to have completely changed.” He manages to find the council building, but the guards there dismiss his claims to have “a most urgent message… a message of the highest importance.” They seem to think he’s a drunkard too.
Unable to convince the guards, he heads back to the Stork Club to find one of his friends, hoping they might believe him. But the Stork Club is gone, replaced with “a sort of barracks.” So he seeks out Anna, who could affirm that the council had sent him on his mission. But a man in glasses occupies her apartment now, and he claims not to know any Anna and to have lived there for years.
Has Franz somehow been sent forward in time? At this point, readers will be forgiven if they feel like they’re encountering at like those the end of so many Twilight Zone episodes, although that doesn’t make the mystery any less enthralling.
Leaving Anna’s old apartment, a stunned Franz narrates that he feels “a strange malaise.” Unable to walk, he looks down at the city, and it seems to distort, to swirl, until it becomes the sundew pattern, seeming to threaten an alarmed Clara.
Recuperating, Franz narrates that he’s “no longer sure of anything. Had I really left Samaris? Had I not left there a part of myself?” He narrates the he feels “weaker and weaker” and that “the city had become foreign to me.”
He returns to the council building, where the guards laugh at him. But with nowhere else to go, he waits by the door for “two full days.” When he speaks again with a guard, he mentions his mission to Samaris, and the name spurs the guards to whisper and to rethink. They open the door for Franz, but they warn him to “be brief.”
The council members sit on two rows of elevated pedestals, which reinforces their positions of power (much like the bureaucrat who had the papers Franz signed, early in the story). Strangely, the council seems to be in session, ready to meet with Franz. Perhaps he’s stunned by this fact, or perhaps he’s still recuperating, but he seems to hesitate, because the central member of the council demands that Franz “speak!”
This central member doesn’t that Franz is telling the truth about his mission, yet calls that same mission “very old, before the Khar War.” Perhaps this explains the barracks that replaced the Stork Club, although the turn to warfare may be a natural progression from Xhystos’s authoritarian tendencies, seen before Franz’s departure. In narration, Franz find their tone “almost menacing,” and he notes that he doesn’t recognize “any of them.”
As the head council member prattles on, demanding that Franz makes his report, the “camera” angle changes, and we see that this council member is himself flat, an optical illusion like the people in Samaris.
Accompanying this, Franz narrates: “And suddenly, the truth appeared to me. Xhystos, it was Xhystos, the simulacrum of simulacra. To rejoin these silhouettes without life, I had abandoned those truly close to me.”
As a sweating Franz turns to leave without speaking one word, the council turns from demanding he speak to dismissing him: “Again one of these sick people! …There are more and more of them.”
Without pause, Franz “again departs towards Samaris,” which he now calls “my city, one I never had to leave.” Framing this final panel, on either side, is the sundew design of Samaris, suggesting the circular nature of Franz’s journey and that he cannot escape the lures of Samaris.
It’s the ultimate twist, but its meaning takes some effort to fully decode.
The Walls of Xhystos
It’s clear that Xhystos is somehow a simulacrum like Samaris.
This obviously adds irony to Franz’s narration, as he departs Samaris, about feeling like he’s escaped. He indeed “had the impression of being free,” rather than actually being free. And it explains why Franz started feeling so weak in Xhystos, much as he felt lethargy in Samaris — and it’s notable that, while his journey between cities is arduous, he never uses the language of ebbing energy that he uses either in Samaris or upon his return to Xhystos.
What isn’t immediately clear is that Xhystos has always been this way.
Unfortunately, we’ll have to get into that next time, when we’ll also explore how the story participates in art history and how it comments on the medium of comics. I hope to see you there.