Vertigo, a DC Comics label active since 1993, has long specialized in a particular type of fantasy comic, grounded in contemporary realism but with an eye toward timeless stories. This is the stuff of popular, writer-driven series like The Sandman and Fables, literary-minded accumulations of myth and folklore in which tales interact with one another, although the style also runs through more acidly critical works, ranging from the lurid socioreligious inquiry of Preacher to the flickering streetwise political awareness of Hellblazer.
Jeff Lemire both writes and draws his work, and his take on the old story made new is especially visual; every line and shadow in The Nobody hums with empathy for its sleepy setting, a tiny fishing town called Large Mouth. Not once does Lemire’s art allow the reader to forget the particularity of the locale, so full of dangling tree branches and open air, shaded buildings situated lazily along empty streets. Each of the book’s three chapters opens with a trio of panels devoted to still lifes—a street sign, a leaf, a traffic signal—an approach designed to settle the reader into the environment and, through repeating images, to convey the passage of time. It’s the same attentiveness to place that marked his Essex County trilogy (2007–2008), as well as the same tenderness for the characters: lumpy fathers and daughters with tilted heads, their component lines brittle as twigs or jagged as blades of grass.
But while Lemire’s visual approach is meritorious, it’s all that is noteworthy about The Nobody, an uninspired recalibration of H. G. Wells’s The Invisible Man into a moral fable of gnawing guilt and small-town paranoia. Here, the bandaged Griffen arrives as a haunted loner from Chicago, his psychic wounds the primary result of scientific meddling; Lemire coyly suggests that his invisibility may be no more than a product of his tortured imagination, though it doubles as a symbol of Griffen’s outsider status in this provincial setting. The tramp Marvel is likewise transformed into a figure of majority scorn. The narrative focuses, however, on teenage Vickie, the only person unafraid of the bandaged mystery man. Griffen, for his part, helps her “see through” the gossipy Large Mouth population, as she unwittingly helps uncover their sins.
Story particulars are equally facile, occasionally helped along by ironic horror, sci-fi, and romance comic-book covers, which serve to underscore themes already clumsily deployed. The birth of a butterfly, for instance, is used to symbolize metamorphosis, the process of which is explicated in dialogue while the cocoon itself is drawn in a style identical to that of Griffen’s bandages, which are later glimpsed covering burgeoning freethinker Vickie, just to be sure. At times, the artist’s heavy hand undermines the narrative: A mysterious character’s true nature, for instance, becomes so obvious from Lemire’s use of mirrored perspectives and complementary layouts that the reader can hardly accept that the eventual revelation is meant to be a surprise element of the denouement.
Yet even that surprise wouldn’t rescue The Nobody. It remains a rote restatement of Griffen’s torture, an invisible man made corporeal by his bandages, driven down by the citizenry’s inevitable overzealousness toward what they perceive as a threat, their own rot exposed as anticipated. As the bandages finally come off in public and the butterfly flutters free in the winter’s chill, the reader hopes that Lemire will follow it into the delicate, wooded backgrounds, where the nuance of his art resides.
Joe McCulloch blogs on comics at joglikescomics.blogspot.com. His essays and reviews have appeared in the Comics Journal and Comics Comics.