Graphic Novel Friday: David B.'s Nocturnal Conspiracies
Continuing with this week's theme of visionary, surreal, and literary fantasy, a look at a recent title that embodies many of these same qualities...
The inspired grotesqueries of dreams haunt or delight those who experience them, become ready-made anecdotes to tell to friends and family at least in part to dilute their power, sometimes even to reassure the dreamer that there's no reality to them. Opportunists like writers and artists go a step further and use dreams as the fodder for inspiration. Sometimes the final drawing or story, painting or novel, strays far from the original sleeping vision, with the less organic but often necessary accoutrements of plot or of a larger context added to give the spark a greater or more complex or just more logical life. But at other times, the temperament of the creator--for example, an Alfred Kubin or a Franz Kafka, an Angela Carter or a Rikki Ducornet--is perfectly suited for taking dream and making it powerful for an audience without adding much. Simply by reporting back from the realm of the subconscious, their voice, their style, their view of the world, creates a satisfactory reaction from the reader or audience.
For this type of art to work, it must be composed primarily of what I call "charged" images. On a basic level, an image in a book or a painting can either be inert or charged, with other descriptions of this latter state ranging from "luminous" to the banal and simplistic "symbolic" (because the term inevitably reduces image to one thing or another, and evokes the word "Freudian," which imposes strict purpose on imagery in a way I find distasteful). An inert image is one that more or less is what it represents, without any further life inhabiting it. A charged image is also what it represents, but contains some other quality that animates it in the reader's mind. It has a resonance that connects with something universal, or perhaps even something personal.
In addition, because a dream-story or dream-art tends to bring the stylized, the ritualized, to the fore--in a sense making subtext physical--there's a kind of intensity of detail that must occur to make the surface of the story or art work. Let's say a bear in a dream has some psychological or other significance beyond being simply a bear. Placed into a story or piece of art in a dreamlike way, that bear must still function at some level other than symbol--although its actions may be symbolic or in some way use other-logic, the physicality of the bear provides the surface or skin of the story or art. This is why so many surreal paintings, for example, require a realistic approach on the micro level of detail to make the macro level of grotesquery seem convincing.
This is a somewhat round-about way of saying that David B.'s Nocturnal Conspiracies, a graphic novel of nineteen dreams dreamt by the creator, works because these illustrated vignettes get the details right, and David B. knows when to add just enough causality to allow his images to remain charged and dreamlike without diluting their effect. It's irrelevant whether this is because he's true to dreams in which he is a passive observer to active events or because he's added this element of suspense. The press release in this case is quite right that "there is nothing deeply Freudian here," but at the same time the images are charged, they are powerful, they are not inert.
For this reason--because David B. doesn't edit the ferocity or insanity of the images that form the nuclei of his dreams--Nocturnal Conspiracies can be deeply disturbing in places. People on spits. A corpse being devoured by monsters. A creature in the form of a gun. Sometimes these elements have a political, contemporary element, and sometimes they do not--but the block print quality of David B.'s art lends them all the same detailed-yet-surreal imprimatur of dream. It brings cohesion through strength of style to what might otherwise seem random--it makes the book more a continuing journey than a series of episodes, with images feeding off of each other in interesting ways.
There's a sense, too, of the jolly grotesquery of, well, Grotesques, which were often amusing drawings of fantastical beasts created by gold- and silversmiths, even if we are most familiar with them in the context of Bosch's more apocalyptic work. A cat-squid creature resembles a spirit-world cat bus from Miyazaki's delightful My Neighbor Totoro. A panel of covers from "books by Roland Topor which I didn't know about" includes a boy-headed dog looking at a dog-headed person. A book of documented dreams can encompass both the horrifying and the absurdly funny in part because the wellspring for both impulses is the same.
Finally, there's the further frisson while reading Nocturnal Conspiracies of recognizing that because David B. is working in a non-realistic although detailed style we are only getting an approximation of an approximation of his actual dreams, many of which you'd really have to call nightmares. In recognizing the distance between what's disturbing on the page and what's disturbing in someone's mind--where realism comes with no pricetag, no matter how expensive a dream-scene might be to stage in a movie--then you could also say there might have been some necessity on the part of David B. to set these images down on paper. The block print style creates intimacy for the reader but distance for the creator. I know when I write a dream out into part of a story, whatever I write--which invariably cannot match the incredible sensory (sometimes terrifying) detail of the experience--replaces the dream in my head, and if it's particularly nightmarish, this has a cathartic effect. In sense, it's therapeutic, even if this has no bearing on how my readers view the story.
This line of inquiry, however, begins to make claims for David B.'s purpose that cross into the highly speculative. The main point here is: David B. has created a graphic novel that manages to be playful, wildly revelatory, darkly imaginative, and outright creepy by finding a medium through which to make his dreams interesting to a reader. It's a great book, and if I've meandered here it's in part because it made me think as well as feel. Nocturnal Conspiracies is one of my favorite graphic novel reads thus far this year.
(One note: Nocturnal Conspiracies is not appropriate for children.)