I’ve got a sweet tooth for Jeff Lemire’s work. Having just recently binged my way through the entire Sweet Tooth saga I was crushed when it ended, if only to have to leave such a brilliantly crafted world behind and move on to other, less sugary confections. Imagine my delight when I stumbled across AD: After Death, a new trilogy by Scott Snyder and Jeff Lemire. The art immediately called to mind Lemire’s previous post-apocalyptic epic, and thus I went into After Death with certain expectations. After Death took my expectations, graciously gave them a obligatory glance, and then proceeded to stomp them into the dirt.
After Death is a graphic novel unlike any other I’ve ever read. Image Comics describes it as a “unique combination of comics, prose, and illustration.” And it certainly is. There are more words in this book than most graphic novels, so much so that I would almost reverse the order of the genre, and call it a novel graphic. The prose is almost poetic in its presentation, with spacing and the visual composition of the words playing a part in telling the story as well. So those looking for a purely comic experience could find themselves out of their element, as there are equal parts normal comic panels and prose. The panel portions are illustrated with Lemire’s signature style, but it is the prose sections that really catch your eye. Each prose page comes with its own accompanying illustration that captures some bit of what is being elaborated on in the prose. Though at first I found myself dreading the prose pages (they are not what I expect in my graphic novels) eventually, on my subsequent read-throughs, I began to appreciate them. The prose sections are from the protagonist’s past, from which he is so incredibly disconnected that it is almost as if the past doesn’t exist, that it is a fever dream lacking substance and therefore image. I can understand that some people will maintain that misgiving that I initially had towards the prose pages and while I came to enjoy them completely, I would not be doing my job as a reviewer if I did not make you at least aware of what could be the biggest pain point for you.
After Death takes place in a world in which death holds no sway. Well, at least that is the premise. A cure for death has been discovered, but how effective that cure is remains to be seen. For example is it only death by illness or age that has been stopped, or would someone still survive a normally fatal stab or gunshot? These are not answered, at least not yet. But what we do know is that the year is 825 AD (After Death, hyuk hyuk) and the protagonist, Jonah Cooke, has been working the same job for three “cycles” or fifty years. And he definitely does not look fifty. So age has at the very least been rendered null. As it has with Keanu Reeves.
I won’t get into any more specifics, as Snyder and Lemire do a wonderful job laying out their world in front of you to make of it what you will. They rarely explicitly state something instead letting their world slowly open before you, giving you clue after clue as to what happened and how. Though this world is a world without death, there is also something devious and sinister about this world, something that is hidden. What that is we don’t know. Which brings me to my first real criticism of After Death. I felt as though this entire book was one big laundry list of questions. Why is the world the way it is? What does our protagonist have to do with it? And other questions that I can’t mention here because, well…
And though I love the idea that there is more to this world than I can comprehend at this point, I also felt a bit like I was being lead along a path with the answers being dangled in front of me but never attainable. I never got one single answer to my questions and in a normal comic issue that wouldn’t be a problem. But I went through 76 beautiful pages and came out with waaaay more questions than answers. That was a bit disappointing. Not enough to make me regret my time with the book. Far from it, I relished every page. But it was frustrating to feel like I was being forced to read the next two books to get any answers. I will read them! You don’t need to bait me to get me to read the next two, I would have wanted to read them anyway.
Sweet Tooth had its fair share of mysteries, but each volume also had a target it was moving toward: reach The Preserve, discover the secret of X, and we could see the light at the end of the tunnel. With After Death, we assume that there is a light at the end somewhere, but we are given no hint at it. We have no idea where we are going.
The main reason I treasure After Death, and Sweet Tooth before it, was because I felt as though the world these characters inhabited was a living, breathing world. That behind the ink and words were rules that governed how this world functions. Just as the laws of physics dictate how our world works, so too do these secret rules dictate how the world of After Death works. Some comics feel as though if you pull back the curtain, you’d see the bare, ugly machinations of the world for what they are: literary devices driving the story forward.
If you were to pull back the curtain of After Death, you would see a window looking out onto a world that actually exists despite its fantastical appearance. You feel as though when you close After Death, its world keeps on spinning without you, waiting for you to pick it back up and see what has happened to its characters in your absence. That sense of physical groundedness, that sense of actuality, is what sets After Death apart from your other run of the mill graphic novels.
Do I recommend After Death? Absolutely. Do I have issues with the number of questions I was left with? Sure. Should I stop asking myself rhetorical questions? Probably. But the only reason I disliked having so many questions was because I wanted desperately to be able to understand what was behind that curtain, what made After Death tick. So I guess that might not be such a bad thing after all.
After Death can be purchased here if you are interested.
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This beautifully illustrated and poetic graphic novel (emphasis on novel) will drag you into its enthralling world, wrapping you in mystery after mystery. It just might have too many mysteries and not enough answers, but I expect that to be rectified in the coming sequels.