Nameless #3 Balances Sanity and Madness

The new issue of Nameless is a step up in scale and in pacing from the previous issues, There’s some plot momentum happening and certain dramatic elements seem to be moving into place for a serious revelation or conflict. But it’s still as beguiling and sometimes as confusing as ever. There’s an entire level to the mythology of this comic that’s operating beyond what the creators, Grant Morrison and Chris Burnham, are willing to share at the moment. The space opera bits of this story are extremely creative and well-executed, approaching Incal levels of imagination and scale. But then there’s another aspect to the story operating in the world of occultism, insanity and spiritual forces that has its own internal logic, but that logic is obscure to me, and perhaps other readers.

That tension is felt and reflected by the characters themselves, some of whom want to just “get on” with the business of investigating a large object heading for earth that, if it hits, will catastrophically damage the planet. That alone is enough of a challenge for the more scientific minded of the crew that billionaire Paul Darius has put together. But encroaching on that story is this infectious religious madness that drives its victims to insanity and murder, and seems itself invested with powers that run far beyond that capacity of human technology. It’s as if one story is infesting the other, which is perhaps a brilliant bit of literary metaphor. As I’ve mentioned several times before when discussing this book, the creators know exactly what’s going on, so I interpret every clever device as a reflection of that… cleverness.

The plot remains mysterious to some extent: we know the mission and what’s at stake, but we’re not really sure who or what the antagonist is and what they want, so it reduces the narrative to something more episodic. At least at this point, we’re just following along as readers, seeing where the ride takes us. Some of the more fascinating things about Nameless happen in the margins, little touches that reflect ongoing themes. One great example is highlighted in this issue, where the astronauts have mystical symbols inscribed on their spacesuits as well as special chemicals and drugs released by the suits into their system to keep them calm. It’s a somewhat subtle way of expressing one big theme: the intersection, and perhaps interchangeability, of science and mysticism. Some members of the crew, very much on the science side of the fence, find that strange, but Nameless himself doesn’t. He lives in that post-Lovercraft world where it makes just as much sense to protect yourself against tentacled demons spreading insanity as it does to protect against the vacuum of space.

But which represents sanity, and which insanity? I suspect that will be a big theme for Nameless as it goes on, exploring that odd intellectual and physical space where science and spiritual forces meet.

[Spoilers from here]

Exploring the inside of Xibalba is rendered out in a class Heavy Metal or Incal style by Chris Burnham. It’s a real tribute to his talent that he’s able to evoke the wide-open spaces of an empty ship in that late-70s sci-fi way. The image of sending three small probes into the darkness and having their light reflect off no walls is simple and wonderful. It’s the sort of imagery we, as fans, hoped for in the unfortunate film Prometheus. Here, it’s executed much better.

Chris Burnham evokes space… in space

Back at mission control, however, as we saw in the previous issue, the madness has taken over. Darius himself has been “converted” (if that’s the word) and they’re busy grotesquely ripping each other to pieces, seemingly for fun. (Is the infectious agent just a high dose of PCP?) One crewmember remains, running for her life, being chased by the Darius drone, and we learn her name is Jin Zhao. But otherwise, the moon base seems to have completely deteriorated. The expedition has lost touch with them, but regain it long enough to hear a troubling transmission that mentions Paul Darius.

Things aren’t so good back on the ranch

An astronaut named Merritt goes on a spacewalk to retrieve the Darius drone in space, and almost at once begins experiencing paranoid images and saying strange things like, “The key was lost for a million years, and we just handed it back!” His suit starts pumping drugs into his system to fight the growing madness, but it’s a lost cause: Merritt completely flips out and the other astronauts make the understandable mistake of bringing him back into the spacecraft. Just in time for him to transform into a hideous monster and “infect” the rest of the crew.

Merritt takes the brown acid

It’s at this point that Nameless #3 goes a bit mad itself. The last few pages are complete and utter lunacy and grotesquery, featuring a catastrophic space crash, followed by a 2001-inspired sequence of Nameless hallucinating (I presume) his life in a clean white hotel room. The last page suggests something far more disturbing.

So, if one of the main themes in Nameless is going to be about the balance between sanity and insanity, this issue brings it all to the fore. And that’s just fine for me (I did study Terry Gilliam’s work for a long time after all, and am somewhat familiar with the concept of insanity). There’s a tension in this issue, a precarious balancing between sanity and insanity that comes off every page, and lasts right until the end. The transformation of Merritt is a particularly effective sequence, but only expresses what a tightrope act is being performed, between logical rationality and, in a sense more disturbing, a madness that has its own logic and rationality. True random insanity is somehow less menacing than madness with purpose, as is being suggested here. It remains to be seen what the purpose might be.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Independent scholar Ian Dawe has been writing for Sequart since November 2013. Before that, he had a mixed background, initially in science (Molecular Biology and Biochemistry), where he earned an MSc from Simon Fraser University and then an MA in Film from the University of Exeter in the UK. He spent a decade teaching at the college level, delivering courses in Genetics, Biochemistry, Cell Biology, Biological Anthropology and Film History. His academic work includes peer-reviewed papers on the work of Alan Moore, Harvey Pekar for Studies in Comics and a dissertation on Terry Gilliam for the University of Exeter. He has presented papers at several major academic conferences including Slayage 2014, Magus: Transdisciplinary Approaches to the Work of Alan Moore in 2010 (in the wizard's hometown of Northampton), Comics Rock and the International Conference of the Humanities in 2012, and at the Southwest Popular Culture Association Conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico in 2014 and 2015. He has contributed to several books, including a chapter about the TV show Archer in "James Bond and Popular Culture" and two chapters on Breaking Bad for "Breaking Bad and Masculinity", both now available from McFarland. At Sequart, he has authored a chapter for New Life and New Civiliations: Exploring Star Trek Comics, A Long Time Ago and two more upcoming books on Star Wars comics. He has also contributed to books on Alan Moore and 1970s Horror Comics. He is currently planning a full-length book on Better Call Saul. Ian currently lives in Vancouver, BC.

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Also by Ian Dawe:

A More Civilized Age: Exploring the Star Wars Expanded Universe

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A Galaxy Far, Far Away: Exploring Star Wars Comics

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A Long Time Ago: Exploring the Star Wars Cinematic Universe

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New Life and New Civilizations: Exploring Star Trek Comics

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