Today, Drew and Patrick are discussing Nameless 3, originally released April 8th, 2015.
It’s like the goddamn “Exorcist” meets “Apollo 13”!
Grant Morrison, Nameless
Drew: One day, I’d like to write an essay defending allusions as the defining artistic device of our time. That’s not to say allusions haven’t been used well throughout history, or that allusions are ubiquitous in all contemporary art, but it’s hard to deny the prevalence of allusions in modern pop-culture, from sampling in hip-hop to the naked homages of Quentin Tarantino. It makes sense; allusions are the natural, artistic extension of the hyperlinks we’ve come to expect throughout our daily reading. In that way, remixes and pastiches are the distillation of our time, simulating the experience of living in an overstimulating world, combining countless inputs into one meta-narrative we might call our lives. Nobody does this kind of remix better than Grant Morrison, whose career is as much defined by his ability to reconcile unwieldy continuity as it is by his affinity for impenetrable density. Nameless 3 showcases both of those sides, meditating on a whole host of sci-fi inspirations before spinning into a wickedly self-aware web of confusion.
I discussed at length the allusions to 2001: A Space Odyssey in issue 2, and while there are still a lot of meaningful parallels in this issue, from the downfall of the crew being brought about by a deceptive robot to the issue’s final scene finding the hero waking up in a creepily sterile room, I was struck here by the parallels to Alien. Actually, to put a finer point on it, the issue more closely tracks the narrative of Prometheus. Michael brought these parallels up last month, as well, but as the crew sends ahead drones to explore a gigantic alien structure before one of their own robots returns to “infect” the crew, completely sabotaging he mission, I couldn’t help but be reminded of that film.
I’ll get to exactly what form “sabotaging the mission” takes in a moment, but first, I want to highlight just how effective artist Chris Burnham is at selling the absolutely massive scale of the alien prison the drones are exploring.
He pulls out the camera even further on the next page to reveal what we’re really looking at here — a gigantic spiral staircase — but this is enough to know that whatever being used these at stairs must have been huge.
(I jokingly called the above image “Stairway to Hell,” but I actually wonder if the imagery is meant to evoke Stairway to Heaven. Nameless referred to Marduk as “Heaven” in the previous issue, suggesting that its inhabitants were what we knew as angels. Here, though, the stairs go down, not up, and into a prison. What would the prison of heaven be? Why, Hell, of course. Kind of appropriate that a song so famously accused of hiding satanic messages (that can only be heard when played backwards) would be evoked, then).
With the familiar beats of exploring an alien structure set, Morrison moves on to the meta mind-fuckery, as one of the drones returns — or rather, a The Thing-style imposter of it returns, “contaminating” the pilot with a dream. At least, I think that’s what happens. We get a brief flash of unreality, complete with the return of the anglerfish henchmen from issue 1, before returning to the scene, which Nameless assures us is “not real.” That’s in spite of it feeling very real.
Curiously, Morrison doesn’t specify who “they” is. It’s easy enough to assume Nameless is referring to the prisoners of Xibalba, unwittingly released by the team, but he actually uses “they” to refer to the ships crew only panels earlier. Who is doing this, and for what reasons, and even what “this” is are all questions that remain salient even as the scene transitions to a Twilight Zone-style nightmare, where Nameless wakes up in a hospital as the only one with eyes.
I alluded to 2001 earlier when mentioning this scene, and while the nightmarish qualities are much more pronounced, I’m struck by the way both stories abruptly escalate to a final image that seems utterly divorced from the preceding moments. Morrison and Burnham trade in their space baby for Nameless’s dismembered torso, a decaying female head, and a hell-scape background of melting clown faces. Patrick, I’m straight-up confused at that closing image, so I’m hoping you have a read that says something about it. Or, at least you might be able to speculate on the significance of the modulation from F-sharp down to E. Is Morrison practicing his minor scales, or what?
Patrick: Man, Drew, I was totally struggling with what to make of those last couple pages too. Are we seeing a time-skip forward? Or just Nameless’ mind trying to soothe him while his body tears itself apart from the inside out? When you’re dealing with concepts as intentionally convoluted as “unreality” it’s hard to make the claim that you understand any of what’s going on. I think you can extend that argument back to the bevy of symbols and allusions you were so excited about. After all, what’s a dream but a series of images and ideas that seem significant, even though they’re just the subconscious freely associated ramblings of our brains?
I keep coming back to that “key of E” stuff from the beginning of the issue. Drew made a compelling argument last time about the tritone between the F# being whistled here and the long low C-drone of Also Sprach Zarathustra. Culturally, there’s aren’t too many classical pieces that you can make specific allusions to their pitches and keys. Honestly, I’m having a hard time coming up with others – maybe Beethoven’s Fifth being in C minor? So what’s the E doing there? Is Morrison suggesting that we’re taking a step down from his last musical reference? Or is he simply establishing that the reader is not to take comfort in the symbols we think we understand?
I’m totally down with the idea that allusions are modern storytelling’s most valued currency. Everything from the most avant-garde to the most commercial trades in recognizable tropes and genres to connect with its audience. Just like Drew, I don’t want to be myopic and say that this is a strictly modern idea – as comic fans we see a lot of allusions to Star Wars, which is itself an homage to sci-fi serials and samurai fiction.
So where’s that leave us with regard to this specific issue of this specific comic? It leaves us trying desperately to make sense of symbols that resist having sense made of them. I think my favorite loaded-but-good-luck-explaining-why visual in the piece is the be-clawed eyeball ripping a whole in space.
The accompanying copy “what am I so scared of?” seems even more appropriate if we just stop to consider that we’re being bombarded with nightmare imagery. That’s a quality of dreams: you can be terrified by thoughts and visions that literally make no sense. My mother spontaneously turning into a blood goat-creature? I’ll wake up with my heart racing and drenched in sweat, but we also know enough about the brain to know that that fucked up image might have come about because I was already panicking in my sleep.
Morrison and Burnham work pretty hard to disorient the reader, leaving them primed for this sort of “here’s a bloody mess” sensationalism. But always in the context of the series’ hapless human characters. The drones — named for the Three Stooges, if you wanted another difficult to parse allusion — present us very clear information, even information that we can put into other contexts. Drew sees Prometheus, nameless very specifically speculates about a prison for giants. It’s when the get back to the human beings that things become murky, and seemingly more random.
Burnham uses these long slanty panels intermittently throughout the issue, but the cheeky bastard rotates our orientation 90 degrees on these first two, emphasizing the idea Morrison is expressing in the text. Nameless cannot trust his brain on the astronauts bio-chemical cocktail and floating in zero-G, just like we can’t trust our inferential skills when confronted with these masters of the medium.
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