A.D. After Death and the Art of Ambiguity

ad_book01-1A key piece of Scott Snyder’s storytelling has always been ambiguity, carefully coupled with facts that seem trivial until the pieces come together, to allow the reader to decide what truly did or did not happen at the end of his story. This trait has gained him both praise and frustration and as a fan even I have grown weary of it. Whether we are left to wonder if Batman truly destroyed his core group’s familial aspects with his self-involved personality or The Wake’s Leeward working out the potential origins of humanity, the audience is left to make up their own mind on several aspects of his finales. This is not a new phenomenon as drawing the reader in and making them an aspect of the story in this matter has permeated all mediums of the craft of storytelling, but Snyder relies heavily on it.

His run on Batman for DC Comics, which made him a household name, brought this aspect into the 2011 company relaunch and sees the leading character of Batman confronted with a possible brother. All aspects of the story point to the relation being possible but the answer is never given. Dick Grayson, at the finale of the arc, comments “I believe what you believe Bruce. But still…if Thomas was never supposed to recover, I mean it if was hopeless… Look, all I’m saying is that sometimes protecting the people you care about from a painful truth and carrying it as a private pain instead…I now see that it can be a noble thing, you know?” The writer casts doubt on his resolution, Bruce Wayne’s faith in his father and his relation to the potential second son left ambiguous and the question never truly answered. Popularity with the mainstream audiences brought Snyder’s tactic to the forefront and further uses have made it something of a hallmark.

And while it doesn’t always work for Snyder, when it does he leaves a strong mark on the reader. The 2012 conclusion to his first Batman arc, The Court of Owls, was wonderful in that it added to an existing mythos while leaving us to wonder just what had changed? It was done respectfully, and the ambiguity of the finale changes the titular character.

20170701_155313It’s ambiguity that leads Snyder’s latest effort, co-created by artist/writer Jeff LeMire, and it might just be the first time since his Court of Owls arc on Batman that the man has been able to so successfully end his story on a question. A.D.: After Death follows the story of Jonah Cooke, a man working a variety of jobs in cycles as he lives out his now-immortal existence, and is told in a mixture of traditional comics style of images and word balloons alongside prose writing. Jonah is a compulsory thief, his personal warehouse hiding a myriad of objects from a recently stolen cow to the EVA pod from 2001: A Space Odyssey. The characters live high up in the mountains, hidden from the devastation in the world below. This world is now ruled by nuclear fallout, disease, and mutated creatures beyond understanding that hearken back to the beasts of Lovecraft. Jonah is disappointed and guilty, his morally ambiguous life having led him to this point. And this world itself lives on in much the same way, with people forgetting former lives when they are renewed and only holding onto journals if they want to remember where they have been and what they have done. Snyder’s exploration of ambiguity lives on in the world itself, with the elite living in eternal salvation above as they look down on the remnants of the world below. Snyder has always displayed a love for exploring America, from his book of short stories Voodoo heart to his full creation of a unique and personal Gotham city in Batman, and this world gets equal attention. The artwork builds a lot into this world with stunning colors and visual imagery.

20170701_155503Guy Debord once said, “The Spectacle is not a series of images, but a social relationship between people that is mediated by images.” LeMire manages to capture a relationship between styles and impact the audience with his work. The artist has made a name for himself with his sketch-art style, from his first novel Lost Dogs all the way down to his recent mini-series Trillium. Now, in an odd turn of events, he has mixed watercolors with his sketches to produce an absolutely stunning book. I shuffled my feet over buying this and was finally given issue 1 as a Christmas present. On cracking it open to flip through my breath was taken away. This is, by far, LeMire’s most interesting work. The main focus rotates around quite a bit, the prose text taking the forefront on its pages as LeMire holds back and his art forcing its way up for air when Snyder uses panels comic speech-balloons instead. In the first issue we get a mixture of Midwestern American farmland alongside giant, nebula-esque electrical storms that look like something out of a Jodorowsky fever dream. Artwork itself plays a large role, with a fictional painting titled “The Land of Milk and Honey” being described in a textured style that LeMire impressively emulates. The art reminds me of Jock’s work in Wytches, another Snyder-penned ongoing, and the sketch art in The Incal by Alejandro Jodorowsky himself. In terms of the visual evolution of Jeff LeMire this feels like a culmination. Pages become shots, as though in a film, with images that are able to achieve the sort of shots that a camera would achieve, such as tracking shots and zooms.

In a way this also feels like a culmination for Snyder. His previous forays into sci-fi have, by their finale, been received with mixed results. His arcs often start off strong before sputtering into a soup of ideas, the audience often feeling underwhelmed by his desire to have them decide for themselves what truly happened. Here, the audience is given several character traits to take issue with. The second act of the story takes us into Jonah’s history, showing him becoming a thief and working with a mysterious but brilliant setup man who goes by the moniker R’Overknight.

20170701_155452Science-fiction aspects of the book are almost painfully serious at times. Snyder alludes to other works like Metropolis, Logan’s Run, and 2001: A Space Odyssey with his prose and the aid of his artist but manages to keep it from feeling like he’s winking at us about it. A recent trend in all mediums of  storytelling has been homage, the chance to take something and invoke nostalgia by asking the audience to remember things they loved from simpler times and liken it to the work at hand. Snyder references these feelings before tossing them aside and instead pushing us to experience something new. The idea of immortality, of a sci-fi heist, and even a human story of guilt and redemption are nothing new. The ultimate culmination of the story itself is unoriginal, with creators like Christopher Nolan and Stephen King having explored this territory plenty of times. Snyder’s story, though, lobs this idea at us early on so that when it happens we are left with the feeling that this was inevitable instead of shocking and that is the work’s greatest strength. There is no other way this could have ended but…did it end? Is this truly the end of the story or is this just the part we’re allowed to see, a sliver of a greater thing that Snyder is giving us?

20170701_160431With such a creative name in the comics industry it is hard to remember that Snyder is actually a wonderful prose writer as well. He has been working in comics for ten years now but his book of short stories, published in 2006, landed him attention that eventually gained him what is now almost creative control over the direction of Batman at DC. Voodoo Heart dropped quietly and Snyder gave a few interviews about it (mostly on podcasts like Fatman on Batman and Fuzzy Typewriter) but it has largely been forgotten. Comics like this one remind me of what a talented writer he can be and the prose sections of this comic might be the strongest aspects of the book. He seamlessly rotates between present-tense and past-tense prose, leaving the reader uncertain as to the distance in time between segments and adding to his climactic moments as they offer grounding. Time indicators are the big reveals, and it has a strong payoff in the finale and so much of that buildup is beautifully paced by Snyder’s writing combined with the sparse visuals at these moments.
20170701_160450One cannot help but feel relieved that the two pulled this off. LeMire has ended several of his creator owned books and settled into comfort at DC, as well as doing smaller things at Image, while Snyder has been wonderful but frustrating between the back half of The Wake and his Batman stories gaining diminishing returns. These two have come back, creatively speaking, in a big way this time and delivered us something that feels relevant and special in that it speaks to privilege, guilt, and where the line between good and bad lies in a person’s heart. Can we undo past mistakes, or are we destined to keep making the same ones over and over because it is who we are? Artist and writer ask these questions of us but leave us to decide on our own because there is no one solid answer, the diversifying beliefs among American society being as varied as our preference in food and drink. When I put this down I walked away completely disturbed because I had to ask myself the same question, and that is exactly what Snyder wants of us. We are never asked to explain ourselves to anyone, but we have to justify our beliefs to ourselves and this is a daring move that paid off for the artists. Asking thought-provoking questions and holding a mirror up to the audience is one of the key points of science fiction and, at last, Snyder has been able to use his hallmark trait to execute that.

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