Today, Drew and Patrick are discussing Nameless 5, originally released September 23rd, 2015.
I’m an insect who dreamt he was a man…
Seth Brundle, The Fly
Drew: When I was first searching for that quote, I was convinced it was actually from Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis. Or, at least, I thought there was a line in Metamorphosis questioning whether Gregor Samsa was a man who dreamt he was an insect, or an insect who dreamt he was a man. I suppose it’s fitting that, while trying to find a quote about the elusive line between fantasy and reality, I ended up looking for a quote that didn’t actually exist. Of course, because Metamorphosis is a real text that exists outside of my head, I can verify what quotes it does or does not contain — it’s a reasonably straightforward binary, translation errors notwithstanding. The events of Nameless, on the other hand, are fictional, so there is no “real.” How, then, do we distinguish its dream sequences from the rest? The answer might just be that we can’t, which could be what this series is all about.
The issue opens with Nameless retelling the story of “the Razor House,” where he and a group of leading minds were tasked with communing with an alien intelligence. It didn’t work quite as planned, causing Nameless to go insane, killing the rest of the group. His psychiatrist gives him a treatment to help erase that memory, but the Veiled Lady later suggests that the treatment was more like an incomplete round of antibiotics, leaving a stronger strain of evil thoughts behind. Of course, the Veiled Lady’s bigger bombshell is that Nameless is “in Hell…inside its mind.”
But where does that leave the space adventures of Nameless et al? Did they happen after the Razor House incident (and Nameless simply forgot because he had his memory erased)? Did they not happen at all, but were some kind of manifestation of Nameless’ “monstrous thoughts”? Or maybe they’re the real part, and Razor House is a fantasy placed in Nameless’ memory by whatever monster was let loose on Xibalba. Or maybe neither is “real,” but both represent some kind of multiversal attempts by Darius and Nameless to make contact with something from the fifth planet.
The issue is willfully oblique on all fronts, and Nameless’ attempts to forget only complicate any efforts at divining chronology out of these events. I will suggest, however, that my favorite rounded rectangles make only two appearances in the entire issue, which may at least point to some level of subjective truth.
If we accept that these pill-shaped panels represent Nameless’ perspective, then we know that, at the very least, Nameless thinks this happened. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t think it was a dream, but it’s not a false memory — he remembers actually experiencing this.
That may sound like a pedantic point, but when the rest of the issue is so mired in forgotten memories and made up realities, knowing what Nameless experienced gives us something we can actually hold on to. That our only anchor point is a decidedly unreliable character’s subjective experience of the world may not be the most comforting, but it certainly orients us in this world. Any of the other images we see of Razor House may or may not be objectively true, but we know this one — and only this one — is true for Nameless.
There’s only one other pill-shaped panel in this issue, and it arrives at the very end, cementing the Veiled Lady as another “true” element of this narrative.
Whatever “answers” we might get about this series are likely to come from the Veiled Lady, not only because she’s introduced as having more knowledge than anyone else, but also because we finally seem to have caught up with Nameless’ perspective. We don’t know how or when Nameless returned to the Veiled Lady (or maybe he was here all along?), but it sure seems like this is actually where Nameless is at the end of the issue — gone are the streaky motion blurs of what may be a foggy memory, gone are the Freudian and Jungian interpretations of what these symbols might mean. Inasmuch as we might expect clear answers from a Morrison joint, I think we might get them next time.
Patrick, I realize hinging my entire reaction to this issue on the shapes of only two panels may be a bit dubious, but I’ll be damned if I could make heads or tails of the rest. I’m particularly hung up on that scene where the psychologist analyzes Nameless’ “memory” of the “demon vagina” — I suppose that means it was a dream? I get that “dream” may not be a meaningful distinction in this series, but I’m having a hard enough time establishing a chronology, let alone a sense of what dreams might mean to these characters. Are you faring any better on that front?
Patrick: Oh, not really. I’ve been toying with the idea in my head that all of these realities — including the nightmarish Nameless-vein-tree panels — are all simultaneously “real” and “present.” The story behind Razor House points to a synthesis of so many conflicting religions and mythologies, and ultimately intersects with some very comic-booky science fiction nonsense, before delivering the punchline: the alien intelligence is God. That’s an endorsement of the reading that all of this is equally real, which of course also means that it’s equally unreal. Add to that the Enochian refrain: “Zirom Trian Ipam Ipamis,” which Darius translates as “Was, is, will be.” Notice that the Enochian phrase contains no punctuation whatsoever, so Darius’ comma-laden translation might be offering more distinction between these concepts than Potter had intended. Past, Present and Future are all one thing, not separated by conjunctions or punctuation, which explains why the storytellers don’t make that distinction either.
Not that that makes Nameless 5 any easier to read or understand. Seriously, between the two of us, I think we’re probably eleven brains shy of understanding this one. If nothing else, this issue accomplishes one thing incredibly well: establishing the threat of alien intelligence, both to Nameless and through Nameless. Chris Burnham has always used this platform to deliver some of the most grotesque imagery I’ve ever read in comics, but this issue doubles down on both literal and metaphorical depictions of horrific violence. In my favorite page, Burnham simultaneously introduces us to the group of thirteen extraordinary minds that will attempt to harness (or channel or summon or… whatever) the intelligence AND forecasts their grizzly deaths.
Again, this is a collapsing of time to present the information simultaneously, rather than sequentially. When I got to this page, I was exhausted at the idea of meeting a dozen new characters — especially as I was trying to keep Nan Samwohl and Nan Madol and Hunaphu and Xbalanque straight in my head. Morrison absolutely bombards his reader with information that you can’t possibly use. Like, maybe it’s interesting to know that one of these dudes in the brain-trust is a clairvoyant game designer with ADHD, but there’s no opportunity to let your head or your heart put that information to any use. In that way, it’s kind of connected to the idea of the psychiatrist identifying that porthole as “a demonic vagina” — it’s a valid read, but what the fuck can you do with it? In reality, readers are no doubt going to be more effected by the viscera and gore than any other loaded imagery. That’s why it’s so hard to hang on to the idea of a “radio-telepathy pioneer” (what even is that?) — when the guy’s guts are spilled out on the floor, who really cares what he pioneered? All you can see is the violence.
But at this point, Burnham is still allowed to be coy with the blood and guts. Any time we get closer to statements that sound definitive, the attendant imagery gets much much grosser. Nameless can say “I am his messenger” or “I am the Lord they God,” but Burnham’s drawings almost demand that we not take anything on the page at face value. How can anything that’s being said in a panel that looks like this be literally true?
That’s pushing a lot of buttons, right there: dismemberment, clowns, insects, gore, sex. It’s impossible to look at this page and not have some weird neurons firing in your brain. The response is biological, not intellectual. There are a couple examples of pages featuring imagery that strong — including the razor-shower at the end of the issue which pointedly slices Nameless’ last good eye in half.
Drew, if the presumption is that Morrison will be offering something akin to answers in the next issue, I’d offer that he’s actually done an awful lot to make us wary of certainty. If knowing that the alien intelligence is God means having to see all of that horrible shit, I’m not sure I want that. Which might also be the point of this series: attempting to understand the un-understandable is only going to turn up stuff you don’t want to see.
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