There’s a lot of black ink in Nate Powell’s Come Again. The pages are soaked, with darkness creeping around every edge, devouring each panel border and threatening every character therein. It’s a paranoid story, defined by disappearance and memory loss, as well as the fear of secrets left to fester. The bright parts aren’t any less unsettling. The juxtaposition between light and dark that recurs throughout the book is disorienting and echoes in multiple places throughout the narrative. Throughout the story characters are hiding secrets or struggling to exhume secrets, caught in some fashion between ignorance and understanding.
The story is set during the 1970s in a commune in the Arkansas hills. The setting is suspicious. Immediately the reader is on guard, since communes – “intentional communities” – are often places defined specifically by the lack of accountability for abusive individuals or practices. Fertile ground for secrets, as the book’s protagonist Hal – short for Haluska – narrates: “In a community like this, we are each other’s business. Work together, share what you have, or pack up for the square world. So a secret is just about all you can own.” Hal has one, of course: she’s been having an affair with her friend Adrian, also married to her friend Whit. Hal has one son, Jake, by Gus – who also still lives in the commune but gets along fine with his ex.
There’s a small hatch in the side of a mountain, and going through this hatch leads to rather large cavern. That’s where Hal and Adrian go to have their trysts. The problem is that the cavern isn’t empty. Something lives inside, something very old and fell that also happens to know everyone’s secrets. Eventually their kids find the hatch and one of them disappears.
The main conflict occurs internally, within Hal as she struggles first against the weight of the secret that she’s kept from her closest friends for a decade, and then later as she must weigh the price of her secrecy against the life of Adrian and Whit’s son. The darkness that hovers just on the edge of awareness is a living thing, creeping into the frame despite her best efforts. Some of the best scenes in here are actually domestic, with Hal and her kid playing hide and seek in the house – “a new phase of his,” she says, “tests for an expanding world. Games in which he can’t be found.” The smeary spotted blacks of their house are cousin to the pulpy darkness of the forest.
Any kind of enclosed space, actually, is coded negatively here. The narrative’s reflexive split between light and darkness – revelation and secrecy – gives certain scenes a tension that pulls the reader across the page. A chunk of the book is spent in the pitch-dark of the cave, and it’s worth pointing out that the page design, in terms of panel shape and clustering, borders, gutters, doesn’t change regardless of whether or not the background is white or back. The pages with the white background seem more dangerous than the near-black pages: especially in the context of a narrative built on suspicion and paranoia, that much negative space incites anxiety.
Eventually there’s a resolution, and Hal has to pay a very steep price for the secrets that have been allowed to fester. Suffice it to say it’s a sufficiently creepy price, but one she is ultimately glad to pay. But the narrative rather hinges on the fact that these people allowed this secret to linger for years in full awareness of how harmful a secret it really was. The commune, “Haven Station,” appears actually semi-functioning: it’s a small community of people but they are shown eating together and working together. The forces pulling them apart are, in the context of this story, completely internal. The price Hal pays at the end is entirely hers: it’s not Adrian’s story, really, but the fact that Hal (and her son!) pay the price for Hal and Adrian’s shared transgression seems like a raw deal.
One can’t help but wondering if all these problems couldn’t have been solved by a single grown-up conversation. That’s kind of the point, one suspects. It doesn’t make Hal a particularly sympathetic character, and that in itself seems rather interesting. There’s a magic creature who devours secrets and kidnaps children, and they’re for some reason really invested in the sexual hypocrisy of grown adults? Certainly that’s all the monster is, an externalizing of the guilt she feels over sneaking around behind her best friend for a decade. There’s never any point where people just, you know, confront the actual problem at the core of the story. By the time the book ends, these secrets have actually become even more hidden.
I don’t know if the happy ending is necessarily earned because there’s something less than satisfactory about giving the moral high ground to a magic cave monster that kidnaps children just because their parents keep secrets. It’s not really any of his business, I wouldn’t think. (Pretty sure it’s a he.)