Nil: A Land Beyond Belief
James Turner, writer/artist
SLG, April 2005
When I was in middle school and first got into Monty Python, I assumed that most grown-ups knew all about philosophers, because Python had so many jokes about them. As it turns out the kinds of grown-ups who know all about philosophers first learn about them as kids in middle school who get into Monty Python, so it’s a bit of a self-perpetuating system. Anyway, Nil sort of takes this premise for granted–it’s like the looooooooooooooongest Monty Python philosopher sketch ever, with liberal doses of Brazil thrown in for good measure. Unfortunately it’s not funny, let alone as funny as Python or Gilliam solo. The basic idea is that there exists a dystopian land called Nil that embodies nihilism in its many conflicting forms, where people pilot big wrecking ships that destroy literal outgrowths of belief, and which is at war with a similar antithetical nation called Optima. The people of Nil spend almost all their time one-upping each other as to who best embodies the principles of nihilism, such as they are–except for our hero, Proun Nul, who yearns for something more. Or maybe he just yearns to have sex with the lovely Miss Void, I don’t know. The problem is that the concept never quite seems sure what it wants to be. Is Nilean nihilism a matter of literal, physical warfare against belief as a living thing, or is it the usual matter of debate and argument? If Nil is resolutely anti-capitalist, why is every page covered in ad parodies? If Nil is resolutely anti-totalitarian, why is it such an ersatz Oceania? Is it a model of efficiency, or of incompetence? Maybe some kind of point is being made here of the nonsensical nature of nihilism to begin with, but it feels more like an attempt to cram in every kind of joke available than a coherent choice of satire. It’s kind of baffling and it leaves the jokes without any solid ground to pivot off of, and it’s not as though any of the characters are developed in any sense but the most broad and parodic since they have no constants to play against. By the end of its 236 pages, which seemed a lot longer, I really didn’t care anymore. All told, the five or six minutes of total screen time given to the Nihilists in The Big Lebowski are a more effective satire of that anti-belief system and the excesses of the life of the mind in general.
All of this is compounded by Turner’s art, which is designy and iconic in the extreme. I’m sure there’s a perfect point of comparison out there that I’m totally missing, but what it calls to mind for me is flash animation, or some very old computer program, or Legos…it’s resolutely cold, flat, and artificial. This can occasionally lead to startling images–generally speaking, the bigger the weapon of war, apartment complex, or Nihilist temple, the cooler Turner makes it look through accrued geometric patterns. (Remember those flying bomb ships in Super Mario Bros. 3, with all the propellers and cannons and things? Kinda like that.) But for the most part it’s deliberately unlovely, making empathy or even awe impossible. It kind of substitutes cleverness for the usual kinds of qualities that make art compelling–of which cleverness is one, of course, but not the only one.
In some ways I think it’s exciting that a book like this can get made and published, but it wasn’t for me.