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.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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