Early in Don DeLillo’s Underworld the author offers up visions of a Staten Island landfill in terms that evoke not the filth and disgust inherent to mountains of waste but instead in a poetic cant that intentionally recalls the Romantics with its emphasis on “the Great Pyramid at Giza…(the) hanging gardens [of Babylon].” The juxtaposition is a perfect example of the kind of broad, hyperbolic satire DeLillo loves to employ in lampooning the psychological maladies of our late Capitalist horror show, yes, yet for all of that it is also a strangely, achingly haunting paean to loss and decay and the passage of time and what the opening chapter – which borrows its title and imagery from Bruegel the Elder’s masterpiece painting – dubs “the triumph of death.” There’s a kind of awful beauty in a conspicuous consumption born of wants and fears so vast they would first drain then bury the planet, a kind of entropic sublime embodying the anxieties of a contemporary culture that recognizes itself in a world so wasted and used that it risks being smothered in the byproduct if it does not first fall apart for want of vitality.
Despite that relevance – or perhaps because of it – there remains a dearth of works interested in tapping that same vein; seventy years after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, thirty years after the Cold War, artists of all stripe still seem preoccupied with the dread and the spectacle of the nuclear sublime. Popular culture at home and abroad remains redolent with imagery meant to recall mushroom clouds and nuclear fire or of scrappy survivors scrounging through post-nuclear deserts so barren it suggests the atomic holocaust has scrubbed them clean. Even the rare creator who can lay claim to peculiar eschatological sensibilities – artists like Katsuhiro Otomo, videogame directors like Yoko Taro -- draw their water from the same irradiated well. No matter how particular the vision offered by these creators is, each seems inescapably fascinated by worlds in the late stages of systems that have grown overripe to bursting and so arrogantly bent on harnessing godlike powers for martial superiority that apocalyptic conflagration has become inevitable. But there remains hope for the world, even if it can come only after a great leveling; the comfort of the nuclear sublime is that it at least offers the chance for a renewal, a rechanneling of those same cataclysmic energies that leveled the old one.
Not so the works of comics artists Tsutomu Nihei, which, by contrast, gravitate less to worlds grown decadent and overripe as to world’s grown weary and dilapidated, worlds that seem as if they do not have energy enough to even explode and so can only crumble away, worlds that seem to exist on the spatial and temporal edge of reality with no possibility of a rebuilding. “The City” that defines the limits of his Blame! is so large that it’s implied to stretch the length of our solar system and so technologically advanced that it has been self-replicating for millennia, yet is so decrepit and so empty it feels less like the culmination of human achievement than a monument to entropy; Biomega finds an industrial society so moribund that its citizenry and environments both have metastasized into zombie-like forms that beg for oblivion. It’s easy to imagine Nihei working in construction at the moment Japan’s housing bubble burst, as Japan’s seemingly boundless prosperity imploded overnight, its cities swelling with buildings that would stand empty and grow delinquent with neglect at the very moment Francis Fukuyama declared “The End of History”, and finding cause to read in his declaration through the most literal and darkest interpretation possible. There is little if anything worth salvaging of these situations; wretched as they appear, grand as they are in scale, who would dare try?
A less generous reader might level the same complaint at Nihei’s work itself. Stunning and intricate as his compositions are, the inks and lines are often so densely layered and the imagery so grotesque – panel after panel bursting with uncertain combinations of viscera and bones and mounds of industrial debris that seems all fused one to another – that it can prove difficult to parse the contents of any given scene, let alone their relationship one to another. Larger scale compositions are paradoxically vulnerable to similar complaints: their adopting so great a scope – panoramic views that dialogue will later suggests spanned dozens if not hundred of kilometers (or, in some cases in Biomega and Blame, tens of thousands of kilometers) – renders their perspective and size incomprehensible from our more mundane vantage points. The only thing could be said to be more inscrutable than the visuals of a Nihei work are the narratives of the same, which for much of Nihei’s early career began in media res, offered only the most cryptic of expositions to clarify a disjointed narrative flow, and featured casts who communicated through monosyllabic grunts when they deigned to speak at all. Nihei has himself remarked in an interview with publishers Evening KC that he “makes it up as [he goes] along, which is why people say [his] work is difficult to follow.”
Yet to dismiss Nihei as glibly as he dismisses himself is to mistake his early stories for something other than the fever dreams they were and which is all they were ever striving to be. One could read Abara – the last of Nihei’s major creations in his classic mode before he self-consciously pivoted to the more commercially friendly art style and narratives of Knights of Sidonia and APOSIMZ – in pursuit of a cogent narrative, of well-developed characters, but it would ultimately be an exercise in frustration. The story – about the trials of Denji Kudou, a tokatsu-style hero in the tradition of Kamen Rider who dons his spiky, skeletal power armor once more to protect the last city on Earth from a resurgence of biomechanical monstrosities known as White Gauna-- takes place in an expressionistic fugue that privileges uncertain associations and feelings over any sense or even obvious emotional fulfillments. Little attempt is made to connect scenes one to another: major plot beats like the severing of heroine Tadohomi’s left arm or the tip that leads deuteragonist's Sakijima’s nameless associate to vital information on the mysterious Fourth Aeon Guild happen off page and with hardly a remark. Action scenes – some of the most intense and brilliant displays of acrobatic page design in Nihei’s already storied career – frequently start with little build up and are liable to jarring interruptions just as it seems they should be accelerating. There is something aggressively off-beat about Abara’s narrative rhythm that suggests the sense of time we’re familiar with no longer maintains. Nihei’s idiosyncratic approach to architecture suggests the same, as he spares no attention to delineating between eras or styles: gothic spires befitting a cartoonish castle might crown a structure that recalls, with its towering tin cylinder of a body, a nuclear silo from some alternate history age of myth, but the hardwood floors and lavishly decorated interiors of the same suggests a Victorian mansion. It’s as if the thousands of such squalid, derelict buildings that make up the nameless city at Abara’s center have washed up on the shores of history from their disparate eras to cluster in the shadows of a handful of gargantuan silo-like structures known (suggestively, ominously) as “Mausoleums” that lean redolent with the dread of Bruegel the Elder’s interpretation of a half-completed Babel.
Nor is there any coherent sense of arc or theme guiding the development of these characters and their bonds. Beyond Kudou, who’s provided a sympathetic backstory, only the barest scraps of associations are left to hint at why characters behave and develop the way they do, to explain how they move in this world, and the sensation of discomfort is all the more striking for it. Not even the grotesque White Gauna that play the role of antagonist, which drive the story, warrant an explanation. It’s suggested they’re born of some kind of infection, but no cause for this infection is ever revealed, no origin for their species or motivation and no clue as to why they first spawned or why only now have they started to reappear. They seem only to be agents and manifestations of entropy in a world so ancient, so tired and used, that it’s begun to fray at the seams. When the last incursion of White Gauna breaks through into the city it is through a breach in reality that the last members of the Fourth Aeon guild can explain away only as “impossible.” Here, at the literal end of history, it seems the rules that governed physics and psychology and causality have broken down entirely to offer up a vision that seems simultaneously too familiar and yet impossible by its very nature to make sense of.
All of this is not by way of complaint but of compliment. That Niehi professes to be “making it up as he goes along” does not mean he has no aesthetic interests or goals in mind from the outset, or that his work’s peculiar power is the result of happy accident. It means only that he has no interest in burdening these stories with a more conventional framework that would rob them of their associative power. One has no further to look than choice examples of his art to understand that Nihei can instill perfect order when he sees the need. Complaints may offer that his style is too busy, that the myriad elements in any given panel only suggests an intended picture that never quite coheres, but any attention towards his meticulous panel layout or brilliant storyboarding of fight scenes, his deft use of spreads to convey the grandeur of these wastes and this destruction, provide ample evidence that he has an unequaled eye for structure and planning and an unmatched instinct for scale: few are the artists who restore a sense of awe and terror to space that decades of clichés, hacky pulp cynicism, and jet-age optimism have robbed from it. Those who doubt are free to pursue the closing pages of Abara, which, with their scenes of the last shard of Earth floating in the void, present an idea of space as grandly inhospitable as it is. Educated as an architect, Nihei possesses a rare insight for how the disparate elements of any composition go together, and so as well a deft understanding of what effects result from every subtraction and change. His works are beautifully balanced, carefully assembled to feel nonsensical.
Nihei is not the kind of author a certain type of cynical intellectual obsessed with art as a kind of game would describe as “difficult” in that his work is absolutely uninterested in providing answers or conclusions to those who investigate it, no high-security vault waiting until its complicated series of tumblers have been aligned to offer up riches. Nor is it amenable to those interested foremost in stories grounded in understandable human desires; Nihei’s early works exists in an almost post-human era, devoid of any emotions or drives we would consider familiar. There ARE no answers in a Nihei story, emotional or intellectual, no resolutions, no codex or Rosetta Stone that will ultimately reveal his work as a clever play or metafictional exercise or probing treatise on human psychology. What Nihei provides instead is a spectacle of existential exhaustion at once horrifying and compulsive, a nightmare vision of an apocalypse that feels – much as his most challenging images – incomprehensibly different and distant and yet achingly immediate. If ever one feels a sense of the uncanny viewing one of his more confounding tableaus it’s no accident: the most powerful of Nihei’s images achieves their impact not through didactic clarity but by a suggestive nightmare logic that hints (but only hints) at enough of a coherent image so as to compel engagement. If his conception of a world drained by consumption and excess seems impossible at the same time it unnerves, if the nonsense pseudo-logic of his plots and the inhumanity of his characters frustrates because we feel they should be more relatable, it is because he’s presented us with a mirror of a situation so ridiculous we can barely stand to recognize our own in it.