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Euthanauts (Volume 1) (review)

Writer: Tini Howard
Artist: Nick Robles

Black Crown / IGN, February 2019

Purchased: Quality Comics, Perth

The cover to this volume is striking. Here in the gloom is a person who resembles a deep sea diver. She is happy, looking directly at us, her head contained in a form of life support, a glowing glass dome filled with golden moths. Beneath the helmet however, where in the 19th century a thick rubber suit would help the diver resist the cold and pressure of the hostile environment of the deep ocean, is instead a grey skeleton. It is a fascinating lure to a potential purchaser.

The artwork through the comic is equal to the cover. Artist Nick Robles is clearly inspired by comic book artist JM Williams III, whose best work was on Promethea (America’s Best Comics, 1999-2003). In some panels there is a dreamy miasmic quality to the art. In others there is pure innovation. Here is an example of the latter: a representation of the ability to see both life and death simultaneously, radiating circles with transitioning views. These sorts of clever story-telling tools recur throughout the comic. It is art like this which makes the unique medium of the comic book worthwhile.

The story itself does not disappoint. The plot concerns a scientific expedition into the nature of existence after death. This expedition is on the fringes of science. It is not apparently funded by a corporate research or a university (an improbable thing for any significant scientific research post-Nikola Tesla). Instead, it is funded by a married pair of scientists with, in time, two protégés: Circe and Guillame.

(Something about exploring the world of what British writer Neil Gaiman called “the sunless lands” must be tugging at the zeitgeist- over at Marvel Comics, Jane Foster: Valkyrie involves the title character about to take a tour along with the murdered Heimdell of the unknown realms of the afterlife.)

“Off with her head!”

In any event, the protagonist of the story is a funeral home attendant named Thalia. Thalia has always had a penchant for death. She is one day at a diner with some low rent friends, when she is struck by the sight of a woman suffering during the last stage of cancer. They strike up a conversation in the rest room, and the cancer sufferer unexpectedly hits her in the head with her oxygen tank. 

It is a dynamic and startling beginning to the story, a juxtaposition of awkwardness and intrusion with the skull-jarring sight of a brutal assault. Thalia would have preferred no doubt to have followed the White Rabbit into Wonderland than be brained by a heavy metal cylinder.

Thalia spends the next few days on a couch suffering from concussion, during which we are not sure what is real and what is not. Indeed, is her entire adventure from then on actually real? Or is she in a coma? Or is she dead?

There are some wonderful details from Mr Robles. One of the most subtle of these is to suddenly observe Thalia walking along apparently holding a blood red balloon, the string a symbolic tether – “tethers” to the afterlife being a key device within the story – and the shadow of a memento mori skull glimpsed on the balloon’s surface. Another is the use of illustration frames shaped like coffins, falling away and shrinking, to emphasise Thalia’s sense of uncontrollable claustrophobia at being trapped in a coffin:

“What if Death is a person?”

Another deft and ironic touch is the depiction of Circe. Circe looks very much like Death, a member of the Endless, from Mr Gaiman’s The Sandman (DC Comics / Vertigo Comics,1989-1993). Death is one of Mr Gaiman’s most popular inspirations and it is fair to say that for a time had a strong cultish fan base. At the beginning of the story we see Circe and Guillame sitting on a park bench feeding pigeons. This mirrors the scene from the The Sandman #7 (1989) entitled “The Sound of Her Wings”, where Death is introduced into the story. Irony enters into the story when Circe is shot dead. (Such a fate can never befall Mr Gaiman’s creation.)

If we have any complaints:

1. the structure sometimes is jolty. Transitional scenes are occasionally lost; and 

2. a key element of the story, the ghostly visitation of Thalia when she was looking into her mother’s grave as a child, is fixed too far back in the story. It would revealed too much to have bolted this scene into a prologue. But the revelation could have been  slowly spliced throughout the plot.

There be dragons

Perils await in the limbo of the afterlife, as we see towards the end of this volume. But the reconnaissance of a plane, in the equivalent of a deep sea helmet, from where, for the first time, the explorer can return, is a strangely comforting concept. There is a “there”, after all. 

In an interview for the AV Club. writer Tini Howard details her creative process:

“I started thinking of death and the beyond as a space, like an actual frontier to explore, and got stuck on the idea that these explorers would have no real way to call back and explain what they’re seeing… After all, ghosts that we think talk to us are trapped in one space, not exploring new ones. Euthanauts is a book about death and dying as a universal concept. Death isn’t just a religious concept, but in a world where we barely understand consciousness itself, we have even less science for it. Grief, the spirit, the soul, the will, what we leave behind – we’re all trying to come to terms with that and we don’t all agree. How do these ideas contribute to our relationship with a deathspace we haven’t yet discovered, and what’s behind the light at the end of the tunnel? And just like any frontier, we have to determine how we safely explore it, and then how we share it.”

When we plainly return to normality, and Thalia is back at the funeral home advocating the concept of a Zoroastrian funeral to Circe’s parents, the wonder and mystery is gone. Awkward discussions have returned. Why do Westerners deal with death in such a stilted and stiff way, wanting the coda to a life to be over with as soon as possible in a formulaic coffin? The comic causes us to reflect on life and death – no mean feat. Coupled with a surprisingly personal and thoughtful introduction from American comic book writer Scott Snyder, this book is well-worth exploration.