Today, Patrick and Michael are discussing Nameless 4, originally released June 10th, 2015.
So kiss me baby, like a drug, like a respirator
And let me fall into the dream of the astronaut.
Where I get lost in space that goes on forever
And you can make the rest just an afterthought.
I believe it’s you who can make it better.
Though it’s not. No, it’s not. No, it’s not.
Aimee Mann, It’s Not
Patrick: Aimee Mann’s album Lost In Space, is one of my favorite records of all time. It’s got all of the hallmarks Mann’s genius — smart, sensitive lyrics, beautiful melodies, a sophisticated chord palette — but where the album separates itself is in its subtly self-referential nature. The title of the record appears both here (on the last track) and on the album’s title track. Calling the same imagery, of being “lost in space” back at the end of the record, makes the singer sound like she’s so mired in her own frame of reference as to make her actual experience secondary to her ability to express it. Grant Morrison and Chris Burnham’s fourth issue of Nameless is similarly focused on expressing a character’s ability to express what he’s experienced through his specific cultural and personal lens. And curiously, he make reference to the astronaut’s dream.
Whenever we talk about this series — and frankly, any time we talk about Grant Morrison — I want to have a professional annotator sitting over my shoulder, cluing me in to all the references that my narrow experience will no doubt miss. Doesn’t that sound nice? Comforting, even, to have another human being insisting on you getting the whole meaning out of a piece of art. But, that’s an insane expectation — for all of our shared history and culture, the only lens we’re ever going to be able to see this thing through is your own. I see Aimee Man, but someone else could easily see David Bowie… or some kind of non-musical reference.
Add to that idea the seemingly random nature of the images Burnham confronts the reader with. There’s a long stretch where scenes and individual panels are presented in an almost stream-of-consciousness manner. Between glimpses of (what I assume is) what’s really happening, we get flashes of Sophia in therapy, grotesque tarot cards, a beachside conversation about over-population, human beings tortured by aliens, and lab rats spreading disease. Two of the most upsetting images from the previous issue also make a reprise: Sophia’s rotting head on a pedestal and Nameless’ armless, legless body with thorny veins growing out of it. It’s a lot to take in — arguably too much. By the end of the issue, we discover that Nameless had something of a psychotic break, and tried to claw his own eyes out because he couldn’t understand the images in his head.
Which is where this all loops back around to the idea of the astronaut’s dream. Nameless himself states that “we are inside of a mind.” That’s literally true for these characters: they’re in the mind of the creators, and then eventually in the minds of the readers. But it also turns out to be true for Nameless, as he’s stuck tumbling through his own subconscious. If the astronaut’s dream represents being “lost in space,” then Nameless 4 represents being “lost in the mind.” So when the panels show off violent, sexual, or just straight-up bizarre images, that’s Nameless free-falling through the endless black vacuum of his mind.
Morrison and Burnham are so good at casting this spell of disorientation — even going so far as to betray some of the visual storytelling rules they’ve established in previous issues. The most obvious of which are those pill-shaped panels that always show us the events from Nameless’ perspective. Burnham has fucked with that in the past, but I believe this is the first time we’re able to see Nameless himself through one of those panels.
This takes place during the psychotic break, so it makes sense that in his dream / hallucination / whateveryouwannacallit, Nameless is able to see himself. Notice how the artificiality of that moment is heightened even further by the caption “Invocation of disgust,” as though no one — not Morrison and not Nameless — had the wherewithal to come up with a specific invocation of disgust. Weirdly, that’s almost invoking the reader to insert their own disgusted sound.
Which is actually an idea that I love. That disgust can only take specific form when the reader decides what it is. The same is true of Sophia’s rotting head being intercut with her in therapy — does that mean therapy does more harm than good? Where to psychology and overpopulation intersect? If my questions are starting to sound a little bit like “What is human?” I think that’s sort of the point. One of the torturees attempts to answer the question by stuttering “Butt-Hoven suh-suh-suhymphonies uhn uhn uhn” or “Beethoven symphonies.” That’s the lens that we keep applying to Morrison’s work — what’s meaningful are the cultural references. I’m no longer convinced that that’s enough.
Michael, I can’t wait to read what you got out of this issue. I don’t want to really lead your response at all, so I guess I’ll just ask which was your favorite tarot card. Mine’s got to be “The Lovers.” because it’s cynical as fuck.
Michael: Cynical as fuck indeed. Not that I can make heads or tails of any of the tarot cards, but I suppose since you picked one of the more over-the-top ones I could go with something less ostentatious like “Judgement.”
This one seems like it’s the most easily applicable to the story in front of us. From the mouse’s perspective it is being tortured/experimented on by humans simply because humans are stronger. Humans have passed judgement on mice by determining that mice are inferior and therefore fit to experiment on. It stands to reason that the beings that Nameless and Sofia are being tortured by/experimented on pass similar judgement. They don’t know “what is human” but they have deduced that human is something they are superior to. It also reminds me that Grant Morrison is a vegetarian.
To tackle this tale of mind-fuckery I suppose I’ll start with “the astronaut dream.” The past couple of issues have reminded us of the fact that Nameless is an expert of black magic and the occult — but he is also something of a master of the dream world. In the psychological study of dreams “the astronaut dream” can mean a whole lot of things from “a strong desire for knowledge,” pointing to “attitudes or feelings that can take you beyond the ordinary view you have of life and yourself” and reflecting “states of mind in which you split off from your body, perhaps in an attempt to run away from or avoid direct life experience.” In a way I can see all of these interpretations applying to Nameless 4. Echoing Patrick, Nameless says “we are inside of a mind.” My read of that line and of the entire gruesome and bizarre series of events presented here is that it exists in a shared mind between the aliens influencing Xibalba and the entirety of humanity. It’s hard to pick and choose what is intended to be presented as “reality” here, but if the “internet reports” are to be believed, then millions (if not all) of humans are experiencing the astronaut dream. Since this is a shared dream space, the astronaut dream is one that is owned by both sides: the aliens have the strong desire to know “what is human” while Nameless has split off from his body because he is trying to run away from the terrible things that are happening to him.
I mentioned Inception in our write-up of Nameless 1 because of what seemed a somewhat similar premise; I am reminded of it again in Nameless 4 in a slightly different way. The whole get of Inception was that our “heroes” had to convince a man to sell his father’s company through suggestion and multiple meticulously-designed dreamscapes. They disguise themselves as familiar faces so Cillian Murphy will feel comfortable and more open to suggestion. Nameless 4 presents us a handful of “set pieces” where Nameless and/or Sofia are being tested/questioned by these aliens. One of these set pieces is the psychiatrist’s office, where Sofia is being analyzed by a therapist who is a dead ringer for Sigmund Freud.
Another is the beach where Nameless and Sofia debate the value of reproduction. You also have the “torture chamber,” the rat cage and the interior of Xibalba itself. Nameless and Sofia are having conversations with each other that carry over to from one set piece to another. The aliens are playing with the two humans like puppets; sometimes Nameless or Sofia express personal thoughts/statements but other times they are acting as a voice for the aliens. They are fully exploring the minds and memories of these two humans. They dig into Sofia’s memory and probe about the death of her unnamed twin brother — possibly psychically driving her towards Nameless himself — and assume the form of one of the most famous psychiatrists in history/her memory.
These are all scenarios that Nameless and Sofia are being put through to answer the alien’s repetitious question of “what is human?” And like rats in a cage who are conditioned to know when they are about to be punished, you get the sense that Sofia and Nameless understand their circumstances at some points. On the beach Sofia laments how Nameless should enjoy it while it lasts, because some part of her knows that they will once again become severed, rotting heads and limbless, thorny stubs. They don’t seem to be able to penetrate Nameless’ mind as easily however. In the scene where the alien lifeform pretty much declares itself to be God, it asks who Nameless is — as if this information is not readily available like Sofia’s stillborn brother. Nameless surrendered his name so no one can have power over him, perhaps giving him somewhat of an advantage against the aliens?
Other than saying that Nameless waking up in the hospital was another stage of these alien’s testing, I don’t have a particular read on Nameless “after the razor house incident.” As always, there are so many question marks flying out of this book. What is interesting is that besides a couple of pus-filled, bulbous back-clingers we haven’t really seen the face of whatever Nameless is up against. We’ve only seen how it’s been able to influence humans to do truly terrible things to each other; which makes this faceless monster even more terrifying.
For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to Comixology and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?