By Scott Snyder and Jeff Lemire
Let’s start at the beginning, after the end of our endings. Where there’s time to forget a lifetime and time to forget the fears of it all running out. Death has been cured and the world has moved on, but it’s what comes next that’s the most captivating. With A.D.: After Death, the first collaboration between comic book heavyweight superstars Scott Snyder and Jeff Lemire, the concept of an afterlife is subverted in a hauntingly beautiful and psychologically harrowing experience. Diving deep into the emotional waters, Snyder and Lemire sharpen the aperture around the all too familiar memento mori experience through a series of what feels like very personal prose pieces and traditional sequential art. A.D.: After Death will linger long after you turn the final page and the plethora of unanswered questions will continue to waltz with images of the impossibly pastoral and inscrutable possibilities.
The biggest hurdle to A.D. is also where the richest emotional blows can be found: the text entries in the form of journal entries. This may well prove as a barrier to entry to those wanting a pure comic book experience and that’s fair enough; raise your hand if to this day you haven’t read a lick of Hollis Mason’s autobiography. Just over a third of the book’s sixty-six pages of story are presented as prose with gorgeous accompanying illustrations by Lemire and they are often very dense. But here’s the thing: they’re beautifully heart wrenching.
Presented as a sequence of journal entries by our protagonist, Jonah Cooke, Snyder is fully in his thematic element as he explores personal fears common to all of us, while Lemire’s hypnotic watercolors give life to the accenting visuals. The creeping, crippling anxiety that comes with the undeniable truth that you will one day die. That everyone will die. And there’s nothing you can do about except watch it inch closer and closer, not truly knowing when it will break through. Snyder invokes the imagery of skating on ice and being blissfully, intentionally ignorant of the freezing threat that lies just below it to great avail in conjunction with Jonah’s stymied happiness and sorrow in his recollections of the time before death was eliminated. Jonah details his earliest memory in the book’s opening, a failed family trip to Florida turned momentary adventure turned scarring experience. There is palpable loss, both literally and figuratively in the loss of control conveyed by Jonah through his attempts to preserve the present in stasis via his intense documentation and recordings. Narratively, it’s effective in transporting you into the mind of a child as well as providing perspective that it’s doing so through the mind of a 600-year old (give or take) looking back at it all. It’s a bold choice for the debut chapter to their story and the slower approach, while touching and rewarding, may be asking too much an audience looking for a more traditional comic experience especially from these two stars.
From here Snyder and Lemire inject a hint of mystery through the ambiguity of the true details of how the world ended up the way it is now (some 825 of years after death’s death) and it’s all rich with metaphor and intrigue and yes, some narrative set-up, but the real takeaway is the sense of relatable powerlessness that’s conveyed. The prose weaves in and out of feelings of guilt and fear of the temporary, reaching a fever pitch in a retelling of how Jonah and his mother would explore lavish New England homes, and the thematic dance it performs with this first book’s title “The Land of Milk and Honey.” A land of abundance as something grim and the grimness of death presented as something to be longed for.
Lemire is the key element to the empathetic pitch reached in most of these journal entries. His style is instantly recognizable, these unrestrained blocks of emotional heft peppered with telling bold lines and given rich texture with the botting and running of watercolors. What stands out here, though, is Lemire’s compositions, the way he balances the blocks of text on the page with his illustrations. Sometimes they nestle alongside, sometimes they frame the bottom or top borders, and sometimes they wistfully move through and behind the text to add spice and momentum to the still letters. The added effect of aging the paper only adds to this dreamlike reminiscence aesthetic as it feels like an actual document.
The present day narrative plays details fairly close to the chest, but Snyder and Lemire dole out just enough to stir your curiosity. This is where the meat of the ongoing plot occurs of course and Snyder’s imaginative vision of this post-utopia is a welcomingly grounded one that’s brought all the more to life by Lemire’s knack for pacing. There’s large farm vistas that have room to breathe, with a warm breadth of a palette and there’s varied moment-to-moment, subject-to-subject transitions that are in no hurry. Lemire’s art, specifically the texturing via his heavy lines and watercolor layering, makes this world feel thoroughly lived in and the sequences are largely reflective showcases of its serenity. It’s an eerily clam world, or at least the portions we see of it here, and Lemire comfortably transitions between the establishing shots and the tighter interactions of the few souls we see this chapter. Here in AD, Lemire crafts an enchanting blend of Trillium’s lively and mind-bending expanse with Essex County’s intimate and earnest dynamic.
Snyder’s script and Lemire’s visuals focus on character in these sequences, specifically Jonah and a little bovine buddy, but still sprinkle in information on how this impossible world operates in an organic fashion. Exposition is minimal, opting instead for scenes like the closing one between Jonah and a woman from his past, where details are talked around as opposed to talked at the reader. Society is something of a co-operative where people work in cycle shifts in 50 year increments, technological advancements with an eye for sustainable energy and a whole different idea of genetically enhanced livestock is the norm, electric storms create new colors never before seen by anyone, knowing that the next time you meet someone you won’t remember them because literal centuries will have passed; it’s all part of this larger tapestry of figuring out how we got here and how and why Jonah wants to “repair” it by starting it over.
A.D.: After Death is an alluring premise presented surprisingly and elegantly. Blending science-fiction, mystery, and even horror in a far more literary experience than one might expect, it’s content to take its time and dig its emotional heels in. Snyder and Lemire are a dream pairing, two creators in fervent harmony that explore the uncomfortable, undeniable fear of death and the scarier prospect of what happens when its gone. Does it ask a lot of its audience by dedicating a third of its hearty offerings in prose and giving only slight glimmers of where the plot might go? Absolutely. But what is here is enticing, nuanced, and layered. Achieving immortality, conquering the unconquerable inevitable death that keeps so many of us awake, isn’t the end game here; it’s just where the story starts.
A.D.: After Death will be released November 23rd from Image Comics