Today, Michael and Spencer are discussing A.D.: After Death Volume 1, originally released November 23rd, 2016. As always, this article contains SPOILERS.
Michael: A frequent criticism of popular fiction is the overemphasis on plot instead of character. There’s a lot of moving pieces involved in “epic storytelling” and oftentimes the emotional resonance of the characters in a story gets left by the wayside in service to the overall concept. Sometimes the fantastical plot of a story so greatly eclipses everything else that the personal relationships of the characters are rendered completely irrelevant and uninteresting. Then there’s A.D.: After Death Volume 1.
A.D.: After Death is based on the sci-fi premise that in the future mankind stops dying. We get a taste of what this future looks like at the end of the volume, but most of the story is dedicated to protagonist Jonah Cooke’s recollection of his family. Scott Snyder and Jeff Lemire tease us with their high concept narrative but firmly plant us in the emotion of the story by familiarizing us with the tragic, somewhat morbidly funny lives of the Cooke family.
The story opens with Jonah recollecting his first memory: a family trip to Florida with his mother and father in 1982. Jonah’s father takes them on a trip as a way to cheer themselves up after a series of bad business and miscarriages. The vacation was designed to be a cathartic escape from their family’s string of disappointments – ya know, a vacation. With rainy days causing them to stay indoors for most of the trip and disappointing balloon contest it ends up being symbolic of their string of bad luck.
Jonah and his family spot a green balloon, floating down from the sky: their last chance at something interesting happening on their letdown of a vacation. They call a phone number listed on the balloon and realize that they were eligible for a prize – only the contest had already ended. Jonah’s father is furious and argues with the woman on the other end of the telephone about how they should win the prize for finding this far-traveled balloon. It’s a comical, tragic scene that is absurd and heart-breakingly familiar. Sometimes life just seems to kick you over and over again and you just want a win, one little victory. Even something as inane as winning a balloon contest.
How odd is it that in a book where death is no longer a factor I find the most moving part to be about a balloon? I suppose that’s the benefit of the bits of prose in this story, which make up about 50% of A.D.: After Death Volume 1. Jeff Lemire has a unique, peculiar style to his characters. The gangly, awkward figures he creates echo the comically sad narrative that Snyder has laid in place. There’s a lot of questions about how the Earth got to where it is in A.D., but Snyder isn’t bothered by that in this first volume. I love world-building answers as much as the next guy, but if there’s no investment in the characters who live in it, who cares about that world?
One concept of this new world that is explored is the notion of memory – or lack thereof. Jonah and the people of A.D. have lived for 800+ years and have met and forgotten one another many times over. That’s a fascinating and logical concept as it is but I really like where Snyder takes it. When your life is never-ending, you probably would look back onto the times when it was more precious IE Jonah’s childhood. Even as a young boy Jonah placed emphasis on capturing/reliving his time with his parents, secretly recording their conversations.
The pacing of A.D.: After Death Volume 1 is indicative of this difference between the old world and the new. The prose of the story is Jonah’s recollections, possibly from his journal. We spend more time in the past with him as he fleshes out the details and remembers the trips he’d take with his mother. The post- A.D. world is told in traditional page and panel comic book format. If you’re guilty of speed reading through comics as I often am, this kind of simulates time as the post–A.D. humans experience it. In a time where death was still existent, people were forced to cherish the short time they had. Post–A.D., we see how humans go through 50 year work cycles as if they were a blink of an eye. When you have an expiration date, time is relative.
There’s such beautiful prose at work here by Snyder. One of the most haunting images that his words evoke comes when Jonah is recalling his pregnant mother’s slow death. He refers to the unborn child inside of her as “a little person trapped inside a collapsing thing, no way out.” We get intimately familiar with young Jonah’s fear of “the other shoe dropping” in several instances and visions, like the freezing water lurking below the ice.
Spencer, whadya got? There’s a hell of a lot to unpack – stuff that I didn’t even touch yet. Do you have any particular thoughts on Jonah’s kleptomania and how that might weave in thematically or directly? He very directly blames himself for the world of A.D. and though we don’t know why, he believes he can fix it. Is he trying to bring death back to the world? With a cow? Finally, if you have any particulars you’d like to cover on Jonah and his mom and “The Egg House” or the creatures that were attacking Jonah near the opening of the book, I’d love to hear them.
Spencer: You’re right, Michael, that there’s a lot to unpack in this issue — so much, honestly, that I don’t really know where to begin. How about with the houses and the shoplifting? I don’t know if the two are directly related in one of those pat, psychological ways you often see in media, but I definitely think they have similar causes and purposes.
“The Land of Milk and Honey,” of course, is an allusion to the Biblical Promised Land that God promised to the Israelites, a place where they could not only live, but thrive. That’s exactly what these homes are to Jonah and his parents — a place where they can thrive by trying on other, grander lives far different from their own, even if it means bending the law a bit to do so. I think the idea that these paintings “should have been grim, but instead were something beautiful” could have a few meanings — Jonah and his family found something beautiful by breaking into people’s houses, but on a greater level, they found a beautiful new outlook on life through Jonah’s mother’s near-death experience. That’s what spurred Jonah’s parents to make the most of life, to spend more time together while they could; they made something beautiful out of something grim.
(I have to wonder if “The Land of Milk and Honey” is also meant to refer to the very idea of a world where death is no longer a thing; that would indeed be a promised land to many. There were no downsides to the Israelites’ Promised Land either — things only got bad for them when they forsook their God. Maybe the idea of a world without death isn’t as bad as Jonah apparently thinks it may be? Whoever is on the other side of his radio as he tries to hack his way through the land of purple tentacles certainly thinks he’s wrong.)
Even more than the casual amorality, that’s the link I see between the houses and Jonah’s sticky fingers. Jonah isn’t trying to find a “better” life, of course — he’s trying to keep the memories of the life he already has — but it’s that same desire that drives him to steal. Not that Jonah’s a hoarder, but I can’t help but think of them anyway; people rarely hoard empty boxes because they have actual use for empty boxes, they hoard because material things have taken on sentimental value and fill an emotional need for them. For Jonah, things — be they his journals or the memorabilia he’s snagged along the way — are reminders of the life he’s lead and a way to make sure that he won’t forget the parts of his life that really matter to him. They keep the best moments of his life alive.
I love the way Lemire brings that thought to life here, using the image of Jonah’s stolen tape to show how the bits and pieces of his mother’s life he’s gotten on tape keep her alive in his mind — the tape is literally the blood in her veins from Jonah’s point of view.
It’s interesting that Jonah’s compulsion to document was originally a response to his fear of death, but has remained a part of his life even in a post-death society. The prospect of losing people who are important to you is just as real here as it is in our world, even if they’re “lost” because they’re simply forgotten, instead of dying. I think that Snyder and Lemire are showing that a world without death still isn’t a world without problems: eternal life brings with it its own set of complications. We don’t see much of the world Jonah lives in, and in a way it feels even sparser than ours, but I can still see signs of overpopulation, for example: why else would man be building homes so high above sea-level that they have to install heaters in the mountainsides?
As for the future, well, I’ve honestly got no idea what Jonah has in mind. I think the implication is indeed that he wants to bring back death (he even talks about grilling up some steaks, which I can only assume refers to the cow he rescued — are the animals in this world immortal too?), but I just don’t think we’ve got enough information to figure out the hows and whys yet, other than that Jonah feels responsible for the end of death in the first place. Maybe he even feels guilty about those who died to bring about the end of death — such as, perhaps, the crew of the Forager? I can only guess that the “underground” world they were lost in is the same one we find Jonah in early in the issue, besieged by plants/tentacles.
While I do think we’ll get more “plot” in future volumes, plot clearly isn’t the point of this issue: A.D.: After Death Volume 1 is about memory, about the past, about nostalgia, and so it’s fitting that Jonah’s remembrances are the most engrossing parts of the issue. Snyder’s haunting prose perfectly captures the rhythms of family and childhood — my own childhood rituals couldn’t have been farther from Jonah’s, but just hearing about his family’s jokes and games took me back to my own childhood and to my own family’s traditions and inside jokes.
Snyder, then, is tapping an IV directly into nostalgia’s vein, and Lemire’s a perfect partner in that regard — he applies a sepia-tone filter to Jonah’s memories, but really, almost any panel in this book looks like it could have been ripped right out of someone’s family album. A.D. may be about a sci-fi future free of death, but it’s also about each and every one of our pasts. Almost any reader should be able to find something to relate to within its pages.
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?