The hardest time in anyone’s life is those few days before Christmas when you’re a kid and you know your present is sitting under the tree. Whenever you can you have a cheeky shake (“I was just moving it out the way of the dog man”) or rip off an imperceptible bit of wrapping paper to sneak a glimpse at what’s inside.
That’s exactly how I’ve been feeling ever since the brilliant new Blexbolex book landed on my desk a week ago, limiting myself to the odd teaser here and there. Yesterday I was finally able to immerse myself in it fully and it’s no exaggeration to say it’s an absolute masterpiece of its form.
Three years in the making, No Man’s Land actually takes place in a single moment, just after the protagonist, a hard-knock detective (featured in 2010’s Dogcrime) blows his brains out. As his psyche hangs between life and death, we are privy to the mental meanderings of a soul passing from this world to whatever lies beyond.
Thrust into the inner workings of the main character’s mind, a series of interspliced survival scenarios that manage to feel at once confusing and coherent, we the readers fall through time and space. It’s a nightmare world of suspended reality – a giant snake-infested swamp, an abandoned liner, a Hieronymous Bosch meets Joseph Heller war scene and some kind of rendition submarine.
There’s a sinister bank-controlled conspiracy world which may or may not have turned our hero into a snitch, a vicious, vindictive Puss in Boots, secret societies, S&M sessions, weird drugs and rancid religious movements militarised out of all recognition.
Visually we know what Blexbolex can do, but even for someone who’s won prestigious awards (Best Book Design at the Leipzig Book Fair 2009,The New York Times Best Illustrated Book in 2010) this is stepping it up a level. On creamy matte paper, the full force of his illustrative brilliance is unleashed – the colour scheme may be relatively simple but the images are anything but as the colliding worlds of a fading psyche are rendered with extraordinary flair.
It’s immersive, at times claustrophobically so, as we are pulled into the nightmare scenarios, but along with a beautiful visual turn of phrase, Blexbolex is also a master of pace and rhythm, slowing down for a much-needed narrative breather before plunging us head-first into frenzy, ambush, fire, then pulling out again readying our shattered nerves for the next descent.
And best of all the whole thing is done with a knowing nod to what he’s putting us through. During one section he gleefully tramples throughout the fourth wall – “The sunrise illuminates an improbable lunar landscape taken directly from the cover of a Roy Rockwood science-fiction novel! Hahaha, it’s so pathetic.”
When the book shudders to a halt and we are back where we started, it’s incredible how deflating it feels, despite knowing exactly what was happening we too have been seduced into thinking the human spirit is indomitable. It’s a breathless ride, but leaves with you with big chewy questions.
No Man’s Land is released on June 12, published by No Brow. Blexbolex is appearing at the first East London Comics Festival on June 17 to discuss the work.