It is very tempting, when you read hundreds of comics or listen to thousands of songs or watch dozens of movies a year, to succumb to the belief that there is nothing new under the sun. This is the Critic’s Disease, and it is nothing to proud of. There is no glory in being jaded, and while it does provide proof against the kind of naïve and simple-minded boosterism that constitutes so much of media journalism today, it can also render you immune to the appeal of what is, after all, someone’s life’s work. Balancing the obligations to be open and to be critical is no one’s idea of a good time, even if it’s less strenuous than coal mining.
That’s why it’s so frustrating when a work like From Granada to Cordoba comes along. In some ways, it’s one of the most inventive and stunning pieces of comic art I’ve seen in years; in other ways, it’s a dismal piece of juvenile nihilism that I’ve seen a hundred times before and hope to not have to see again. The first graphic novel by the European cartoonist and plongeur Pier Dola (who, if his biography is to believed, is the kind of pure, uncontaminated outsider artist that one rarely sees anymore), it’s such a singular and relentless work that it’s a struggle to say anything about it at all.
First, the good news. From Granada to Cordoba – a sort of picaresque of the grotesque, which follows the surreal and horrific misadventures of one Mr. Ókata from his abrupt diagnosis of terminal cancer to his lonely death – is a work of outstanding visual craft. Soaked in bodily fluids, smeared across the pages in bold blood-reds and stark death-blacks, its riveting color palette complements its busy, complex layouts. Its sole use of full color arrives at the end of the story and, like the appearance of filmed motion at a key moment in Chris Marker’s La Jetée that disrupts its otherwise constant use of still photographs, it changes the experience of reading entirely, finishing the book on a sinister, quiet note after hundreds of pages of aggressive noise. Dola is a powerfully capable craftsman who sustains a tone of relentless alienation far longer than it would seem possible.
The bad news is that all this technical brilliance is in service of the most defeatist adolescent nonsense imaginable. From Granada to Cordoba is a graphic novel treatment of the concept that life sucks and then you die: heightened, abstracted, and intensified beyond the limits of bourgeois propriety, but never given more depth than its origins as a bumper sticker or t-shirt slogan. Nothing means anything and death awaits us all sooner or later, so why not watch a window cleaner squash his dick against a glass pane? Why not confess to a priest that your last wish before dying of cancer is to fuck someone up the ass? Why not write a 228-page comic book about an anonymous nobody wielding his prolapsed rectum as an offensive weapon?
Since Dola never does us the favor of going easy, let’s do the same for him: This book has all kinds of problems. Whether intentional or otherwise, it’s full of misspellings, confusing grammar, and hard-to-read lettering. It’s repulsive and offensive to the point of numbness. It has all the political, emotional, and philosophical depth of a bored, drunk teenager on a bus flipping the bird. It doesn’t go anywhere in particular, which Dola would no doubt defend as part of the point, but that’s one of the problems of nihilism: If nothing is worth saying, why say it?
And yet: From Granada to Cordoba has stuck with me ever since I finished it, and not just in the way you might expect a comic about a guy dragging around an urban European hellscape with his asshole literally hanging out might stick with you. Dola makes so many choices that are simply so odd that they make for little unexpected moments that break even the mood he’s trying to establish, and which might just be the mark of something better than the sum of its parts. His bizarre predilection for making the characters look like famous people (Ókata is a dead ringer for Peter Lorre; his curiously hostile doctor looks just like Eddie Murphy; a vengeful street thug could be Nick Cave’s twin brother) is an very weird artistic choice, but also serves as a reminder of what a terrific artist Dola can be, conjuring Drew Friedman at his best. The backgrounds of every panel are full of strange and sinister details. For every moment of gross sex jokes, predictable Freudian nonsense, and dopey body-horror gags, there’s a brief flash of something greater, as when he shares a strangely touching scene with his daughter, or when he envisions his cartoonishly evil bosses as savage animals.
One of the most curious aspects of From Granada to Cordoba (I’m not well-versed enough in European comics lore or the bizarre fever-dream that is the story’s ‘narrative’ to say whether the title stands for anything) is how simultaneously alien and familiar it seems. Its raw, attention-grabbing visual style is alarmingly good, and after a few decades of the kind of inward-turning, life-affirming small stories that make up so many indie comics, its virulent reek of negativity and violence seems like a bolt from the blue. But in so many other ways, from its sense of humor to its language to its often-easy satirical targets, it puts one in mind of the kind of scatological material that was released by the truckload during the zine boom of the 1990s. Maybe we haven’t seen anything quite like the book before, but it contains echoes of its own creation that can’t be escaped.
Dola has already prepared a second graphic novel, based on the global COVID-19 pandemic, and regularly releases material on the internet. Whether a genuine outsider or a crafty projection, he’s a singular talent, and in an era of monoculture, he seems like a rare discovery from a bygone age. This isn’t a book for everyone (it’s certainly not for me); it may not be a book for anyone. But its mere existence is a reminder of what the medium is capable of, for better and for worse. It’s a helpless, hopeless cry of unfocused rage that we may not need, but which we have to listen to, if only for a moment.