By Grant Morrison, Chris Burnham, and Nathan Fairbairn
It’s hard to think of a more mercurial modern comics legend than Grant Morrison. He’s a brilliant author whose written more than his fair share of lasting classics like Multiversity, The Invisibles, Doom Patrol, and his reinvigoration of Justice League of America. He was the one who brought previously obscure heroes like Steel, Huntress, and Plastic Man into the A-list club and defined over half a decade of Batman continuity. However, for every brilliant success his career is marred by strange entries like Happy, Action Comics, or New X-Men. None of these comics are legitimately bad so much as they are poorly implemented. Morrison as an author tends to be at his best when he’s allowed to just envelop himself in whatever obsession he’s fixating on at a particular moment in time. Comics like Doom Patrol or Arkham Asylum work because he’s delved completely into his own unhinged psyche while his Batman work was great because he embraced the entire spectrum of Batman’s history. He’s not a creator who should be forced into half measures because when he is, you get strange offerings like Nameless.
Much like Morrison’s other mid-way offerings Nameless is not a bad comic. Even within the realms of Morrison’s directionless work it stands out as higher quality than usual owing to how much he’s indulging his more gruesomely violent and metaphysical impulses here. The central premise has been…complicated so far and difficult to explain. Basically from the start, the book has existed in a kind of dreamlike un-reality that’s hinted at more complex goings on. So far things have revolved around the titular Nameless, a sort of Constantine-esque mercenary and vagabond from the high stakes world of urban fantasy. He’s been swept up in an endeavor to save the Earth from an oncoming massive asteroid which is also the prison of an omnipotent alien intelligence from an anti-universe.
If you aren’t into Morrison’s more surrealist work Nameless is definitely not the comic for you as it rises and falls on his most out there concepts. The book is all about a weird blend of quasi-Lovecraftian lore reimagined through the lens of Chariots of the Gods with a smattering of Doctor Who lore for good measure. That kind of gestalt weirdness that makes just enough sense for you to think you understand while simultaneously being so bizarre and complex you’ll never grasp the whole picture is at the heart of what Nameless is and why it works at all. The best way to look at the comic is as an experience rather than a strict narrative that you’re following. There’s no story to diagram to here, just a slurry of visuals and scenes meant to engender a sense of altered consciousness through reading. It’s most reminiscent of Morrison’s Multiversity: Ultra Comics in that the story is more about surrealism and the way we hold ideas in our mind more than the characters or events at hand.
In that respect Morrison is actually taking the backseat to Chris Burnham on this project. Burnham’s a brilliant artist and Nameless may very well be his masterpiece. His work has always carried with it a kind of visceral ugliness with a gritty effect that was downright palpable and he turns that skill up to 11 with Nameless. Even when he’s not called upon to depict scenes of horrific, Hellraiser-esque gore and violence there’s an uncomfortable undertone to the world at hand. A big part of this also comes from Nathan Fairbairn who is doing an amazing job with the coloring. He and Burnham complement each other perfectly to create this all-consuming aura of otherworldly wrongness to the page that never lets up. Their work more than anything else gives Nameless the kind of waking nightmare aesthetic that makes it so deeply compelling and engaging.
None of this is to say Morrison is cut out of the equation. Morrison has always had a unique skill at finding short but evocative snippets of dialogue that have a way of getting lodged in your mind and that skill is very much on display here. What’s more, once the bigger and more unsettlingly cynical ideas of the book make themselves fully understood there’s no denying the existential horror at the core of Nameless. Some of the more meaningful ideas of the series are still fairly obscured by the complexity of the execution, but if you read through the issues carefully it’s possible to see the deeper ideas being alluded to. The same goes for the pre-requisite Morrison meta-narrative on the nature of stories that peppers most of his work. You can see aspects of a great commentary, mainly revolving around the idea of high concepts, blockbusters, and Sci-Fi given how much the plot of the comic plays like Inception and Armageddon were hijacked by 2001: A Space Odyssey, but the deeper ideas have yet to emerge from the surrealism. For the moment however, Nameless is still an enjoyable experiment if not much more than that. There’s no denying the surrealistic mood piece aesthetic of the comic works well, but it’s an unsustainable core in the long-term, leaving this an engaging read that fades from memory all too quickly.