By Scott Snyder, Jeff Lemire, and Steve Wands
There are few works, and even fewer comic books, that so successfully ask “the big questions” while enrapturing their audience in a world of unbridled imagination and empathetic examination. A.D: After Death #2 would almost read like something out of a philosophical journal if it weren’t so beautifully entrenched in the familiarity of feeling like flotsam in a sea of fears and hopes. Jeff Lemire and Scott Snyder continue their ontological experiment that slyly dithers to and fro in empiricism, existentialism, and temporality bound in a package of prose, sequential, and luscious illustration. It remains, in the truest sense, thoughtful and thought provoking in a manner that is rarely seen in the comic medium.
Much like the debut issue, Snyder and Lemire continue to bend the notes of time through a layered structure that encapsulates multiple narrative timelines and storytelling techniques. Opening again in media res to a future (or at least, a most recent present) Jonah, the reader is gracefully thrust back to his younger days via prose flashbacks that detail that fateful day Jonah first heard of the cure for death and then pushed forth into the more recent past of his time listening for the Forager station in the dead world below. To top it off, interspersed in that more recent past are nightmarish flashbacks to a time betwixt the earlier timeframes.
The labyrinthine construction is doubly devilish in how well it mirrors the story’s questions of temporal relevance and relation when something as firm as death has been removed. What does it matter when something happened precisely if the end of the timeline has become infinite? When can we say for sure our existence is based on our experience when our memories of said experiences have long ago faded into the sands of millennia? It’s a demanding story to follow at times from a traditional standpoint, but it’s far more demanding a work in terms of the thematic questions that vibrate below all that narrative structuring. It’s One Hundred Years of Solitude injected with a science-fiction magical realism for the modern fearful citizen of the world. Fortunately, it is infinitely rewarding for those willing to give themselves over fully to the rhythmic horrors and comforts of what it posits.
The real magic of A.D.: After Death is its ability to grapple the esoteric with the intimately grounded reality that are straightforward plot points. Snyder and Lemire relay research of modern thievery and logistical space travel and modular home construction into a compelling plot as we learn about more about Jonah’s own inner struggles and the beat by beat anxieties of what happened on that day humanity broke all the rules. It’s thoroughly compelling reading, perhaps even most so in the prose bits, that’s rife with charming allegory throughout; a suit made out of life experiences to be worn by the dead and a man who burned the one made for him, a song years-long with never before heard notes, and that special painting we saw in the first issue. These are the places where together Lemire and Snyder really make music together as they lay bare all their big, terrifying questions. Does freeing man from death dehumanize man? What value is life without death? Does the removal of death remove memory and thus remove our basest comprehension of life? It’s a damn playground of momento mori in a tale that’s still almost inexplicably life-affirming and that’s where A.D. strikes its greatest chords. Where else could one find thorough explainers on what it means to be a “steak” or a “bread” in professional thievery right alongside subtle queries of what it means to be human? If anything, this issue may have revealed almost too much information in regards to the nitty-gritty how’s and why’s of this world came to be and how it operates, but perhaps that’s only because Snyder and Lemire have made it so damn fun to roll around in the conceptual obscurity.
Snyder may get the writing credit, but this is so in Lemire’s thematic wheelhouse it’s nearly impossible to imagine anyone else as this script’s co-conspirator. Wading in the same eerie sci-fi meets profoundly human sense of reality waters found in The Underwater Welder, Sweet Tooth, and Trillium, Lemire is as devastatingly poignant as ever. What better application is there than the malleable and wistful effect of watercolor to illustrate this particular temporally amok experiment? Lemire’s watercolors blend and flow in a way that feels both weathered and vibrant. When combined with his bold, almost charcoaled, outlines to ground his figures, the overall aesthetic is striking in a way that only Lemire can conjure. Throughout the imagery is this bizarre amalgam of deeply unsettling and comfortably tranquil; much like the larger questions behind the work as a whole.
The prose illustrations perfectly match the undercurrents of the text in singular objects or settings; a tilted nearly empty glass of a stiff drink, a framed picture, an unassuming yet emphatically Schrödinger-esque luggage, a stick of butter. The sequential pages too are remarkably patient in their pacing with large swaths dedicated to ever increasing zooms in and out. Lemire’s knack for not just instilling tone, but heightening it, allow for the emotional blows of the subtlest changes between panels to hit with maximum efficacy. The few double page splashes that are utilized are amongst the most beautiful portions of the issue and a refreshing reminder of how useful a tool they are when not abused as is the case in so many other books. Lemire’s work here is all about an orchestral balance that’s meticulously attuned to pacing as it creates an ambiance awash in fluctuating watercolor that lingers and echoes far longer than any words do.
Kudos to Steve Wands as well, whose restraint and creativity in both placement of large blocks of text and balloons alike suspend the haunting effect of the story being told. The typeface font of the prose pieces continues to be the ideal fit for the journal entries and understated block font of speech conveys the mood of this familiar yet terrifyingly foreign place.
Is A.D.: After Death groundbreaking? No, not quite. It plays with structure, form, and themes in ways that have been seen before, to be sure. However, it is certainly a rare gem of a comic that tickles the imagination in ways that so few comics ever do. A compelling plot that’s parts horror and science-fiction and mystery is thoroughly buoyed by the largest questions there are to ask, A.D. After Death #2 offers further proof that the dream pairing of Snyder and Lemire has indeed delivered on its high expectations. Graceful and deceptively contemplative, this is a book that makes plenty of demands from its readers, but offers a plethora of meditative rewards in return.