By Scott Snyder, Jeff Lemire, and Steve Wands
The most surprising aspect of A.D. After Death is how, taken as a whole, it is a love letter to death. That’s not to say it’s nihilistic, quite the opposite. What Snyder, Lemire, and Wands have crafted here in their interwoven prose exploration is a comforting and hopeful experience that subverts the momento mori reflection. After Death feels deeply personal, but it’s also packaged in a mythological lore that’s rife with metaphor and symbolism; it’s an English professor’s dream yet equally accessible to anyone who understands the feeling of loss. Snyder and Lemire didn’t set out to answer the meaning of life or anything quite so grandiose, and most of what’s examined here is well trodden ground in fiction; however, how it’s told and the resulting emotional resonance is deeply satisfying. A.D. After Death #3 is a wonder, one rich with pain and terrifying tranquility. As this series about endings comes to its end, the lingering reassurance it leaves you with is unexpected, but welcome; that not only is life worth living for, but so is death.
In a book of big ideas, the idea of the lead character, Jonah, as being representative not just of himself, but of all of humanity rings loudest in this issue more so than in the preceding entries. He is larger than life in his Promethean-like story to steal a forbidden color and his current journey is a reverse Eurydice tale about running into the underworld and how his desire, borne from fear of the unknown, led him to take the cure that would keep death at bay forever. Errant is the snake hanging from the tree tempting all to give into the very relatable temptation of the fruit he is offering. Jonah moves in circles through the ages, repeating past mistakes and past triumphs, and retains the knowledge of all skills gathered with little to remember in the way of the context of how he learned them. Here he is symbolic of all our fears and desires throughout our existence, a mythological hero at times and a forever unaging toddler learning its way, but he’s also the sum of his own personal experiences. Through his own journals, the annals of recorded time by his own hand, he rediscovers his personal self. And that’s the brilliance of Snyder’s script when paired with Lemire’s haunting art.
One can feel the weight of Snyder’s experience as a parent, as a son, as a partner, throughout After Death. It rings true in its humility and its curiosity. The fiction is buoyed by an earnest reflection on pain and fear, one that’s relatable because they’re universal and one that feels personal. It comes to its apex in startling fashion as Snyder has Jonah come to his epiphany, one that reads like an admittance of author as much as character. “I am a coward” Jonah concludes, and it involves both the obvious cowardice to accept our mortality, but more importantly it speaks to the cowardice of refusing to acknowledge happiness. This is the crux from which everything spirals outward, where the metaphors meet the literal. There’s twists to come before it’s over, but this is where they all point back to. It’s the realization that unending life is horrific not solely because meaning begins to fade, but because it’s about running from the truth of self in a circle over and over.
There are more double-page spreads in this issue than in the past two and Lemire has each and every one of them sing. These moments aren’t so much massive as they are vast and Lemire gives them a ton of room to breathe, so that they hit or linger or freeze with to maximum effect. Tying to the themes of temporal echoing, there are many instances of multiple Jonah’s moving across to convey his literal movement and his thematic repetition. Lemire instills a sense of seclusion and the dangers it presents in the form of the unknown land as he has Jonah traverse a harsh, evolving landscape. It’s reminiscent of some sort of biblical trial or a feat of strength, but in typical Lemire fashion, the sequential portions of the book are oozing with a discomforting serenity. His rendering style, with its deceptively shaky lines and blockier forms, is obviously great, but it’s how he employs it that’s the real treat. In issue #3, Lemire delivers his most human characters yet, in both the sequential panels and in the prose accompanying illustrations. Look at his characters’ faces throughout; there’s palpable fear, a readable dystopia in their faces, and a longing for hope. Wrapped in the fluid watercolors that deliver both the frenzied cacophony of impossible storms and the gentle moribund nature of the everyday doldrums, the art from Lemire is inseparable from the ideas it explores. With it now complete, it’s incredibly difficult to imagine any other artist being more perfectly suited for this particular story than Jeff Lemire.
The consistency of Steve Wands’ lettering holds it all together yet again. The continued use of old typeface for the journal entries remains a great choice, but their arrangement on the page is an imaginative and rarely seen instance of lettering contributing to the themes being discussed. Blocks of text slither and break and center and enlarge to varying degrees in a way that might normally be distracting, but here instead inform. The structuring implies a cadence, and that voice feels natural. The caption boxes Wands’ uses for Jonah’s inner thoughts are also a lovely sort of mania, resembling torn pieces from paper, as if from a journal. Having them be somewhat transparent, especially atop Lemire’s watercolors, also strengthens the idea of being thoughts.
All this praise aside, why this work wasn’t realized as a single original graphic novel as opposed to three meaty periodicals is confounding. The schedule at which it was released only served to undercut its very potent depth. One would certainly be very hard pressed to remember some of the finer details from issue #1 released back in December of 2016 that play an important part here in issue #3 in May of 2017. Credit to the creators for structuring each issue to feel like it can stand well on its own as an individual part of a larger narrative, and some of that may very well be thanks to the natural three act structure, but it’s hard to imagine that anything here wouldn’t hit even harder when assembled together in one package.
A.D. After Death may not be a masterpiece or a groundbreaking work of staggering genius reinventing how art looks at mortality, but it is undeniably beautiful and arguably each of these creators’ best work to date. It discusses life through the absence of death and in turn, discovers the horrors that spring forth from what that means. Time folds in on itself. The sense of self is lost. We fly too close to the sun and we steal the fire from the gods and we eat that forbidden fruit. Our fear of decay, of pain and of loss, is a fear only of the unknown and yet here, Snyder and Lemire remind us that it’s that same decay that defines who we are and how we choose to hold onto all the love and all the regret and all the other facets we carry. Dying is life. “We will go.” We will all go. And there’s beauty to be found in that.