‘Nowhere Men’: Science, Drugs, and Rock N’ Roll [Review]
Hiatuses kill me. When a great comic book reaches out and touches all those nodes of pleasure in my brain on a regular basis, I come to expect the hit. When that hit suddenly doesn’t come when it’s supposed to, when the next issue is listed in the solicitations only to get pushed back again and again, that expectation grows from an anxious wiggle of electricity in my brain into a full-blown itch, and the longer the wait goes on, the more I want to push my fingers into my head and scratch it. Try as I might, I can’t recall a recent book that’s given me that itch, that’s instigated that want more than Image Comics’ Nowhere Men. Eric Stephenson, Nate Bellegarde, Jordie Bellaire, and Fonografiks are creating one of the most intelligent, experimental, and beautiful comics today, and after an absence of several months, this week it finally returns.
Nowhere Men posits a world in which scientific innovation is as culturally important, as loved and revered and as cool as rock and roll. Some time ago, a band of four scientists – Dade Ellis, Emerson Strange, Simon Grimshaw, and Thomas Walker – formed World Corp, a scientific research and development group that went on to become the most powerful and influential company on the planet. Somewhere along the way, though, an ideological rift separated the four great thinkers: Thomas Walker took the Syd Barrett route and sauntered off into the starry unknown, Simon Grimshaw established his own corporation, Dade Ellis disappeared from the public eye, and present-day World Corp, no longer guided by four geniuses of similar vision, has suffered.
Meanwhile, in space, something has gone awry. Aboard the International Space Station, a group of scientists working clandestinely for World Corp have been infected with some type of virus, which affects every member of the crew in different ways. Worse still, their mere existence is a secret kept from most of the world – the only ones who are aware of what the crew are doing are senior members of World Corp. When news of the virus gets back to the company, a quarantine is put into effect: no matter how bad it gets, nobody is coming to get them, nobody is going home. Knowing that they have been abandoned, the crew take desperate measures to get themselves off the space station.
And that’s when things get really interesting.
With a litany of fantastic books like Prophet, Saga, East of West, Sex, and many more, Image Comics — under the stewardship of Editor-in-Chief Stephenson — has blossomed into the most daring publisher of challenging, intelligent, and original genre comics on the block, a title that previously belonged to Marvel in the 60s and 70s and passed to DC/Vertigo in the 80s and 90s. Given his clear track record of knowing exactly what types of comics have the chance to be great, it shouldn’t be surprising that Stephenson’s own book is one of the best-written titles currently being published.
He’s tapped into something new here, not just in his linkage between science and rock-n-roll (which seems especially relevant given the public perception of thinkers like Elon Musk and Brian Cox), but in the elegance with which he’s telling such a complex story while maintaining the level of intrigue. Stephenson has created a vast and mysterious world, with an immense backstory slowly being uncovered through flashbacks, dialogue, and ephemera, including imaginary magazine interviews and book excerpts.
The cast, made up of enigmatic geniuses who all speak like real geniuses do, seems to grow with every issue, and Stephenson handles them all deftly, giving each a distinct point-of-view, something to gain, something to lose, and something to hide. Jumping through time, leaping from place to place and character to character, he’s managing to tell a completely engrossing story without yet revealing to readers exactly what’s going on. Instead, we’re given an idea, a suspicion of how all the parts link together to form a bigger picture, and finding a new piece of the puzzle always inspires a genuine thrill of discovery. It’s sleight-of-hand on a very high level.
Joining Stephenson in this magic act is the remarkable Nate Bellegarde, whose clean animatic style has evolved light years since his already great work on Hector Plasm. Some may object to the comparison, but I can’t help but see in his uncluttered style something akin to Alex Toth. His layouts are deceptively simple, his character work is realistic, his spare backgrounds are smooth and defined, and his sense of design is top-notch: space stations, billionaires’ homes, the wind-swept dunes of Tunisia, industrial wastelands, even his stylish characters – everything he draws just looks, for lack of a more literary term, awesome. Each issue of Nowhere Men is a portal into a world similar enough to ours to seem familiar, but just slightly askew: cooler, sexier, nearer the infinite horizon.
With Bellegarde are Jordie Bellaire on colors and Fonografiks — aka Steven Finch — on lettering and design, and each contributes just as much to the coolness of the book as Bellegarde and Stephenson. Bellaire seems to have a knack to choose the color just to the left of the one you’d expect, and her pristine, also animatic approach never once muddies up Bellegarde’s impeccable linework. Finch, whose hand comes into play on the cleverly-composed covers and the ads, interviews, and book covers that make up the ephemera, rounds out an artistic team that makes Nowhere Men, cover-to-cover, a book that looks completely unlike any other.
It’s no accident that the first line of dialogue in Nowhere Men is a nod to The Beatles’ “Taxman” – “Let me tell you how it will be” – the first song on Revolver, the first album the band made after they had all taken LSD. Like The Beatles at that time, Stephenson, Bellegarde, Bellaire, and Finch all seem attuned to the same strange frequency, in the midst of creating one of the most unique comic book experiences on offer. If you haven’t been reading it, now’s the time to tune in, turn on, and drop out.