One panel in particular stands out in this chapter of Brief Lives. On page 23, the bottom left panel gives us a sihouetted figure, bright yellow eyes his only visible features, standing against a dark blue-purple-red sky. This is an anomalous panel in a chapter that has been mostly bright, or at least neutral, in color tone, with no other character entirely silhouetted in a panel.
This panel is a moment of obvious drama, and its powerful, menacing darkness reflects the expectations of Dream and Delirium that their reunion with Destruction will be a big event, possibly even a dangerous one. They have found him, and here he stands like a monster against a bruised and bleeding sky. He’s seen from a low angle, which gives him even more size and power.
Turning the page, we’re back to seeing him well lit, and the sky, though dark, has lost its red menace.
We don’t know yet what this means, exactly, because the chapter ends here, but we can suspect that we should aim our expectations toward surprise in the next issue.
That penultimate panel on the penultimate page is the most self-consciously beautiful one in an issue where the artwork doesn’t otherwise draw a lot of attention to itself. This, too, supports that one panel’s drama — nothing else in the chapter upstages it. Interestingly, the panel is the fourth of five on that page. It is not given a page to itself, nor is it the last panel we see. The placement undermines the drama, helping to ease us back toward the softer, gentler, more variegated view of Destruction. The panel is dramatic, but it’s not overwhelming.
The colors and silhouette reminded me of a moment from childhood, when I had just bought the latest issue of the only comic book I was allowed to read, G.I. Joe, and I said something to my mother to indicate that I thought a particular drawing of the character of Snake Eyes (a ninja dressed all in black) was especially powerful and even, perhaps, beautiful. My mother, who had encouraged my occasional interest in art museums and artists, did her best to turn my comments into a teachable moment, and so asked me what, exactly, I found powerful and beautiful in the portrait of Snake Eyes.
The event is perfectly preserved in my memory — I even remember where we were standing when she asked (stairs outside the office where she worked) — because I struggled for words to express what I felt about the picture, and I was very much aware of my struggle, because I not only wanted my mother to know that I wasn’t allowing these awful comics to rot my brain, but I wanted her to share in the pleasure such a picture could provide. I said that the richness of the colors appealed to me, and I stammered for other words, but I couldn’t say anything else. I knew that, yes, the richness of the colors was appealing, but there was much more to it all as well — but what more? What kind of words did I need to be able to give my mother something of the experience the artwork gave to me?
The question would linger with me for a long time. It’s a question not merely of finding the right words. Even if I had had the vocabulary and insight to talk about the composition of the panel, I doubt my words would have been able to open the experience of pleasure in that panel to my mother. Her mind would interpret the images as gaudy and ridiculous, an interpretation that existed deeper than words and so could not be overcome by words. Her clear displeasure with the panel, and with comics in general, was no more a rational response than was my pleasure. Had I been especially eloquent, I might have argued her toward appreciation, but no words would argue her into joy.
Much of my time since childhood has been devoted to teaching and to writing about other people’s art (written and filmed, primarily), and I think part of the reason for this traces back to that moment when my mother asked me to explain what I saw in one panel of one issue of G.I. Joe. I’m no Freudian, so I’m not proposing some sort of Oedipal origin here, but rather an experience common, I would guess, to us all — the desire to open our perception entirely to someone else. Is such a thing possible? I don’t know, and I’m not sure it can be known, because we don’t (yet) have a way to fully experience another person’s mind. We can approximate, and we can use our arts to offer representations of what we think and feel, but we are, alas, always ultimately alone with our exact thoughts and feelings.
The desire to share those thoughts and feelings, our senses and perceptions, and to know the thoughts, feelings, senses, and perceptions of others, is a common motivation both for art and for discussions of art. Think about how much fun it is to create something and to have someone else seem to gain insight or pleasure from it. Think, too, of the joy in finding someone who loves a song or story or sculpture or comic book just as much as we love it. The distance between our actual perceptions doesn’t really matter much in such moments. We’ll live without exact matches; what we thrive on is the sense of connection, the sense of being not entirely alien to all the rest of humanity. (And oh the frustration when somebody else just doesn’t get it! I’ll confess I sometimes suspect there’s something wrong with them, some defect in their senses or character, especially if what they just don’t understand is something I adore more than mere enjoyment. I know, rationally, it isn’t necessarily true that those who fail to appreciate my passions are failed human beings — I know that perceptions depend on moods and experiences and mysterious moves of mind — but that doesn’t ease the frustration. Similarly, there is the frustration of seeing otherwise discerning and intelligent and sympatico people going wild for something that leaves me cold or, worse, that I truly despise. Such frustrations make me want to crawl under a rock and suck my thumb.)
If I thought symmetry and balance were the greatest values in the universe, I would try now to connect these thoughts to this chapter of Brief Lives, perhaps trying to draw some tenuous line between the idea of connection that art creates (or seeks to create) and the impending conversation between Dream, Delirium, and Destruction. But symmetry and balance for their own sakes falsify and distort the ragged realities even of fiction, and they certainly stultify a casual essay.
Instead, I will end with an observation, one that doesn’t overtly connect to anything else I’ve said so far, and in the spirit of anti-symmetry and anti-balance, I will let you do with it what you will.
The book that Destiny holds in his hands in the first part of this chapter could, in fact, be the very book we hold in our hands, Brief Lives. This was not as true when the chapters were published as separate issues, but now that they are collected together, we, too, can flip back and forth between all the eras of these characters’ adventures. If we had the urge, we could skip ahead and find out how it all ends. If you have read Brief Lives, you already know, and so, like Destiny, possess no capacity for narrative surprise.
As for me, I’m a mortal in these realms, and so, for now, remain in ignorance, recalibrating the mood organ of my expectations toward surprise.
Matthew Cheney has published fiction and nonfiction in a variety of venues, including One Story, Weird Tales, Locus, Rain Taxi, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and elsewhere. A collection, Blood: Stories will be published by Black Lawrence Press in January 2016. He is the former series editor for the Best American Fantasy anthologies and currently a co-editor of the occasional online magazine The Revelator. His blog, The Mumpsimus, was nominated for a World Fantasy Award in 2005. He is working toward a Ph.D. in Literature at the University of New Hampshire, where his research focuses on the work of Virginia Woolf, J.M. Coetzee, and Samuel R. Delany.