We Few, We Happy Few, We Bandaged Brothers: Jeff Lemire's The Nobody and the Quest for Self
A touching, heartfelt meditation on identity and isolation in a small town, Jeff Lemire is able to redress an H.G. Wells classic and make it as timely and disturbing as ever.
“…Monsters are real, and ghosts are real too. They live inside us, and sometimes, they win.”
-- Stephen King
“That man wears his skin like a dancer wears her veils.
That man stalks his victims like a cancer stalks a cell.
That man’s soul has left him, his heart’s as deadly as a rusty nail.
That man sheds his skin like a veil.”
-- Cowboy Junkies, “This Street, That Man, This Life”
In Jim Jarmusch’s brilliantly insane and trippy neo-western Dead Man, a singular moment of inspired psychedelia finds its way to the forefront of the film. The character of Blake, conversing with his Native American friend and spiritual confidant, asks the man his name. “My name is Nobody”, the man replies. Blake, understandably confused, asks for clarification. Nobody obliges by explaining that his birth name literally translates into “He Who Talks Loud, Saying Nothing.” Blake, still at a loss, requires further clarification. “I thought you said your name was Nobody.” The man simply, and honestly replies --”I prefer to be called Nobody.”
Contrary to normal assumption, the titular character of Jeff Lemire’s latest graphic novel masterpiece, The Nobody, is small-town teenager Vickie, a dissatisfied Gen-Xer living in the small fishing town Large Mouth, an amusingly clever double entendre of a moniker that would do Alan Ball or Gary Larson proud. Indeed, Lemire creates a world that both satirists would admire, but more than anything else, he shapes, through both his images and his words, a complex, gut-wrenching reinterpretation of one of H.G. Wells’ best-known classics.
Like The Invisible Man, Lemire’s graphic masterpiece centers around a strange, bandaged vagabond named Griffin (here called John Griffen in homage to the 1933 film adaptation of the Wells novel). His past unknown to all around him, and possibly even himself, he wanders into a small town, automatically inciting controversy and suspicion as he is inadvertently and unavoidably injected into the lives of those around him. In both works, the bandaged stranger is surrounded by characters with names like Kemp, Marvel, Adye and others. Finally, his questionable sanity and the overwhelming suspicion of the town finally do him in, literally laying him out for all to see, whatever one chooses that to mean.
While the story beats in both works are virtually identical, The Nobody certainly gives the story its own unique post-9/11 twist, concerned as it is (and Lemire’s other work, both past and present) with finding one’s own identity amidst persecution and alienation in small town North America. Most unique among Lemire’s characters, as established earlier, is Vickie, the only citizen of Large Mouth who actually cares enough about the stranger to befriend him, an action which, of course, is misinterpreted by her father as anything but innocent. Vickie’s father serves as not only a reader surrogate, concerned as Lemire’s audience should be for a child of that age to consider an unknown such as Griffen a close friend, but he also serves as the voice of the victimized community. The Catholic parents of Boston, the African-American families of New Orleans, the citizens of East Timor, the Tasmanian Aboriginals, the emergency responders of New York City, the Jews of Prague. Vickie’s father, overprotective as he is (and has every right to be), is concerned -- some might say obsessed, but that may make both him and Griffen feel uncomfortable -- and motivated by the desire to keep his town, his home, his family pure, to make sure “it can never happen here”. But doesn’t everyone say that right before the unthinkable happens?
Another unique element in Lemire’s reworking of the tale is its splintered narrative. By splitting the action between Vickie and “Griffen”, and by making Vickie the narrator, the key moments Lemire provides showing the “mad doctor” in complete privacy makes any possible interpretation of his state of mind and, in fact, his past history all the more unsettling. The implications of Griffen’s true identity during and following the visit from “Kemp”, a man who seems to know all of Griffen’s darkest secrets? Horrifying. His remembrances of his wife’s passing and his recurring dream of descending beneath a body of water until he vanishes, clothes, bandages and all? Terrifying. His drive and obsession to experiment, experiment, experiment until everything he’s done, whatever that is, can be reversed? Gutwrenching. The suggestion that his bandages cover nothing more than his own fear of looking himself in the face and seeing what might, in actuality, not be invisible? There are no words to describe the sheer terror of that thought. It’s almost as if, when that suggestion is made, the real world becomes less real than the one Lemire has crafted, and it all just floats away as if it were the most unimportant thing in creation. The only essential thing in the Universe, then, is knowing Griffen’s secrets, his identity, his history -- but as outsiders, the audience does not deserve to know. What have they done to deserve to know John Griffen’s secrets? Nothing. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. In fact, Lemire might just be saying, in an awkward, uncomfortable way, that that might just be how the world should be.
This distancing of the reader’s attention from the story’s focal mystery and the alienation of Griffen from the populace of Large Mouth itself only serves to highlight how out of place the erstwhile invisible man is. “John Griffen” sticks out like an extraordinarily visible sore thumb, even when he traverses naked through the snow, leaving behind nothing more than footprints (possibly).
By setting his story -- at times heart-stoppingly personal, at times a tale of an Everytown, at times somehow both -- in 1994, Lemire is able to draw attention away from the fact that The Nobody is an exceedingly post-9/11 work. This is not to say that its themes aren’t universal and timeless; they very clearly are. However, the concept of the town loner, the stranger, the odd duck who know one really knows all that well not only fuelled the original Invisible Man and all subsequent incarnations, it also inspired such classic works as Frankenstein, The Merchant of Venice, The Wizard of Oz, Dracula and Alice in Wonderland. However, all of these concerns -- the individual’s true modus operandi, the amount of privacy they deserve when they dwell in our community, the difference (if there is one) between their true name and the one they may have stolen -- have only been heightened since that September day, with phrases like “identity theft”, “Homeland Security”, “Coalition of the Willing” and “if you see something, say something” etched into the minds of the planet writ large.
Lemire has long excelled at highlighting how the outside world has impacted the isolated individual in all possible ways; his work in the superlative Essex County graphic novel trilogy ands the current DC/Vertigo series Sweet Tooth are most certainly a testament to that. Much of the time, his work is so personal because he’s poured so much of himself into it. Certain characters in his Essex County cycle seem, at varying points, to represent certain archetypes and/or individuals in Lemire’s own life, or, indeed, Lemire himself. Sweet Tooth, lamentably only three issues in, seems to be heading in this direction as well, as the series protagonist, Gus, shares a given name with Lemire’s son. The narration that frames the story -- courtesy, of course, of Vickie -- tells how the town’s eventual contribution to John Griffen’s inevitable fate (which, admittedly, would have happened regardless of whether he ever arrived in Large Mouth or not) forced her to decide to leave the town she called home and set out to become her own woman. Far away from the judgmental eyes, ears and of course mouths around her, she is free, and she has learned the value of individuality over mob mentality. Like Blake’s companion in Jarmusch’s Dead Man, Vickie may admit to being a nobody, but that doesn’t mean anything bad in an age where everybody wants to be like everybody else. By breaking free of the confining uniformity of the Large Mouth community, she may have become even more of a nobody, but that only means she can rebuild herself. Vickie is free to become the person she always wanted to be: friend to the outcast, champion of individuality, enemy of conformity, enemy of isolation.
But more than that, she is free. And nothing is more important than being free.