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The quintessential scene in any media of the western genre is a standoff between two gunmen. Film plays with this duality. The two actors, and their guns, are often juxtaposed in mirroring shots. A long shot of the horizon may be included, dividing the frame into sky and ground. The theme might include the leitmotifs of both characters. As the genre has been, historically, heavily film based, it is not surprising that the western comics of the 20th century, like Jean Giraud and Jean-Michel Charlier’s, Blueberry and Lucky Luke by Maurice De Bevere under the name Morris, carried over elements of this duality to the sequential image. The former’s influence is particularly palpable in Negalyod: The God Network, a postapocalyptic spiritual sci-fi western where cattle are dinosaurs. It is written and drawn by Vincent Perriot, Florence Breton is on colors, Lauren Bowes is on letters, and the translator for the English edition is Montana Kane.

The influence of Jean Giraud, who mostly published under the name Mœbius, is so prevalent throughout the graphic novel that I couldn’t help but read it as the synthesis of the two strands that comprise his career: the more realistic western work and the sci-fi spiritualism of The Incal, Arzach, The Airtight Garage, and other such works. It is not a perfect work, and like quite a bit of Mœbius’s own work, the narrative threads get jumbled near the end. That said, Negalyod is a fascinating addition to the tradition of Francophone comics, especially in its usage of SFX and its inclusion of gridding more in the American style than the Franco-Belgian. Negalyod also takes the perennial motif of dualism found across the western genre, using the language of comics, to an artistic extreme that results in a deeply engaging reading experience.

The narrative of Negalyod starts off fairly simple and within the constraints of the western genre. In a postapocalyptic world that is desertified as a result of the overextraction of water for some unknown end, Jarri Tchapalt, who can speak the language of dinosaurs, is a herder of cattle (once again, yes, dinosaurs here) in the country. A truck from the city harboring a weather-generating machine rides through his cattle’s grazing area, killing them all. Jarri sets out for the city for revenge. He goes to Station 3703. There he joins the resistance against the upper city from the lower city led by The Great Kam. He also starts up a relationship with The Great Kam’s daughter, Korienze. A skilled stranger coming to town and leading a resistance is such a staple of the western genre that it even has precedents in the samurai films of Kurosawa and the like that influenced cowboy films. The sci-fi spiritualism of Mœbius comes in with the dinosaurs, who made a deal with humans long ago that humans have betrayed, and the mysterious network that controls the city. The god of the Great Kam and Station 3703 is Namarari (a likely reference to the Pintupi artist Mick Namarari Tjapaltjarri), though their presence and worship is mostly tangential to the narrative.

The symbiotic dualism is present within the characterization and setting of the book. There are those in the city and those in the country, the first half of the book is more set in the country while the second is more set in the city, there are dinosaurs and humans, the relationship between Korienze and Jarri is reminiscent of The Incal’s approach to the alchemical rebus, and The Great Kam and the city’s network are both ancient, wise leaders of their respective sides. Within the city, there are those in the upper levels, with water, and those on the lower, without. The network, which primarily benefits those on the upper level, sends out nuclear-powered weather trucks to force storm clouds to form and produce rain in the desert. This rainwater is collected and transported through giant pipes back to the city. The process is extremely destructive to the already ravaged environment in the long term, as it furthers desertification, but also in the short term, as the radiation kills Jarri’s herd. Furthermore, we see the upper level control the lower by selectively allowing them access to water.

There are also rather interesting characters, like General Alice, whose introduction gives us a glimpse of the grander world and its military history, but who, himself, isn’t fleshed out nearly well enough to wholly justify his place within the narrative. As a result of some of this weak characterization, there are parts of the world that left me wanting more depth as a reader.

Where I have no qualms with Negalyod is the art. Going over Vincent Perriot’s pencils, one is reminded of the grittiness of Blueberry but as if married to the expansiveness, and attention to detail, of Mœbius’s sci-fi spiritualism, as in The Incal. In particular, the hatching and other techniques used to convey the textures of the various objects, buildings, creatures, and people the book leave the reader with a sense of how worn and dry this postapocalyptic world is. A reader of Blueberry would find Breton’s approach to color familiar. In keeping with the dualism I’ve already described, the main colors utilized in Negalyod are oranges and blues, complementary colors. The setting partially consists of a desert, and these colors are common to westerns, but the stark manner in which they are juxtaposed, especially for emotional affect, are particularly reminiscent of Mœbius’s style and approach.

Additionally, Perriot and Breton have an eye for incorporating the standard visuals of the western into their work. The long, sprawling shots that feature sunsets and the horizon that often help convey setting in western films are recreated here. Perriot makes frequent use of one-point or two-point perspectives in recreating these iconic elements of the western. The former is especially used to depict sunsets whilst the latter is more used to depict the city in all its grandeur. The detail included in these panels and pages (as they are often full-spread pages) requests the reader’s time, drawing the eye in, mimicking the slow shots of horizons and sunsets. The perspective conveys the size of the dinosaurs and the city, the smallness of the humans, and the larger emptiness of this postapocalyptic world. There is also some usage of isometric panels, which Mœbius was quite fond of doing.

What is of particular interest, and cements Negalyod as a contributor to the Franco-Belgian comics tradition and not just an imitation, is how Perriot plays with the two-point perspective using a grid of panels. In European comics, non-uniform panels are put in loose grids to control pacing. Grids have been used similarly in American comics, too, but usually with uniform panels. The most popular grid is the nine-panel one used famously in Watchmen, for example. There, beyond pacing, it was used to tell narratives (like one that read much the same backward and forward) specific to the medium of comics. Though surely not the first, Perriot’s integration of the American approach to grids in comics into the Franco-Belgian tradition is fascinating. Where the American grid usually consists of lengthy rectangular panels, he morphs and rotates them into diamonds. Some pages utilize this grid to recreate the speedy cuts used in intense moments in western films. Other pages ramp up the panels within a grid from twenty to thirty to forty-eight, following the logic of how grids impact comics reading to a ridiculous degree. This diamond grid is additionally utilized to tie into the larger theme of networks and connection within the book, as it pops up when the characters log into the in-world digital network. The most memorable usage, however, is on a page wherein a one-point-perspective panel is housed within a diamond grid. If flattened to its most simple form, any image utilizing two-point perspective would be in the general shape of a diamond. Superimposing a visual symbol of the two-point perspective over a panel depicting one-point perspective is, firstly, just artistically brilliant. The visual effect of this page is one of immediate awe, especially for readers familiar with grids in comics. More importantly, it ties into the larger book’s themes of reconciliation (between dinosaurs and humans but also between different humans) and the conflict between the present and the past.

The book’s dualism even features in its use of SFX. It is not as neatly tied to the thematic aspects of the book as the paneling, but two styles of SFX are used in Negalyod: that within text bubbles and that without. The Franco-Belgian tradition, especially Mœbius, generally utilizes this distinction too, where SFX without captions are usually representative of especially loud sounds and gunshots. The SFX within text bubbles are fascinating because, often, they do not actually represent sound but are just the visual signifier of sound decoupled from the signified sound. In accordance, this view of text bubbles plays into the idea that they are panels within panels, as explained in Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics.

Consider whenever a solitary question mark pops up in a text bubble whose tail points to a character. It could be interpreted as representing querying interjections like huh, but if the author had meant huh, they could have simply written it. To me, a question mark within a text box functions much like one popping up over a character’s head within a video game. It conveys to the person consuming the art that the character is surprised but exclusively through visual language.

(For the longtime comics aficionado, the SFX within boxes adds to the discussion of whether to refer to dialogue within boxes as speech bubbles or text bubbles. Regularly, I simply don’t care, but in the context of this specific aspect of the Franco-Belgian tradition, I would argue that they would have to be considered text bubbles or boxes as they are not distinct from the explicitly non-speech text boxes that house SFX. For Negalyod, what this entails for the reader is the experience that this desert world is even emptier of sound than previously thought. In fact, the only SFX one can say is arguably representative of actual sound, that which occurs outside of text boxes, stems mostly from weaponry and the weather machine—both clear signs of the barrenness and destruction plaguing this world.)

With Negalyod: The God Network, Perriot and team have crafted a work steeped in the filmic tradition of western Franco-Belgian comics and spiritualistic science fiction that, nevertheless, still features modern additions. For its minor narrative flaws, any reader will walk away stunned by how dry, how soundless, and how thirsty for life the world depicted is.

ML Kejera is a Gambian writer based in Chicago. He is a Caine Prize nominee and Commonwealth Short Story Prize shortlistee. His work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in The Nation, PanelxPanel, and adda. He reviews comics for The A.V. Club. Please send him pictures of your favorite pizza @kejeraL.
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22 Apr 2024

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