Geis II: A Game Without Rules

Geis II: A Game Without Rules

My mental image of the American West has the texture of 1970s film grain seen in spaghetti westerns. I justify this instinctive deferral to technological contrivance by believing that the dirt and sand of the desert find a home in that brightly colored grit, but certainly there are some people a generation older who might imagine the same landscape in Technicolor. Archivists dealing with actual historical materials might see it in tintype, and rationalize their imaginings as being closer to the way that residents of the time saw themselves. The way we see is defined by light, and the way that light is captured then becomes a part of how we see everything we can't witness with our eyes alone.

Meanwhile, there are images of the fantastical. Inspirational paintings ubiquitous in churches and religious homes depicting a white Jesus in a cloud-filled heaven are regularly taken to task for inaccuracy. Depiction carries political connotations guaranteed to alienate even when there is an attempt to court as wide an audience as possible. The texture of the prose fantasy genre is pulp so soaked in nostalgia it gleams. It is this iridescent sheen that then defines current CGI adaptations, that use the latest technology to feed more frames into filmgoers' eyes than the pupil can swallow.

What a relief for the reader to take in the pages of Alexis Deacon's fantasy series Geis. Deacon is primarily a children's book illustrator, and the Geis series constitutes his first graphic novels. Here the painted color and soft pastel palette seem natural to the story's setting within the past. It feels like the light is pouring through castle windows, or supplied by candles. The relief is not just in the way the palette soothes the eye. As we see these things that never existed, we are convinced that this is how they should look. The art makes such a strong case for its aesthetic choices as to convert those who might be skeptical of subject matter of sorcery and curses, castles and kingdoms. Looking at the pages, I feel none of the revulsion I so often feel when looking at fantasy images. There are neither dragons nor elves, and there are no over-sexualized figures coexisting alongside anthropomorphic animals. Just robes and complicated hats as far as the eye can see.

Magic gets all the characters beneath those clothes moving and sets the plot in motion. As the chief of a city-state is dying, a sorceress has put a curse on all interested in taking over, forcing them into a competition where all but the winner will die. Most are unaware of the nature of the curse, but accept the challenge in earnest as a way to take power; a scant few attempt to escape their fate by defeating the sorceress. All this was established in volume one. The sheer visual appeal of watching shadow and light play off each other is worked out further in this second volume, where the characters are split into two teams, wearing black and white, with each given a stick of chalk or charcoal to write upon the surfaces that surround them, which have also been split into sections defined by their color. Brighter colors still prevail; the book is not defined by black and white for visuals in any sequence beyond the moments establishing this premise. It is a procession of set pieces, cutting back and forth between narrative threads, with the occasional use of all-seeing orbs as framing devices for inset images.

All the action sequences read smoothly. While the images have the glow of gouache to them, the underlying inkwork keeps it grounded in a type of immediacy. While the painted color unites the images in a sort of soft gauze, it never smothers the ink line's ability to depict a space and the figures moving inside it. The lines themselves sketch out the characters thinly and quickly, with figures on the smallish side situated clearly inside environments, though thick globs of ink emerge when depicting things being pushed into the foreground. The linework is not ornate with filigree, in the way that Frank Frazetta or Barry Windsor-Smith would use their pen to capture a "fine art" aesthetic. There are also never large splashes depicting a figure "heroically," or attempting to replicate iconography cribbed from religious art. The focus on background and setting is based on Deacon's admiration for Winsor McKay, a version of nostalgia that's based on finding what works within the history of the medium. Still, he uses the page count available to explore the space of the settings he's depicting, rather than work in the manner we see in Little Nemo, where the flat plane of the page is emphasized to have greater graphic impact.

This distinction also explains the use of a digital font that some readers objected to after seeing a preview elsewhere on this site. It's true that the lettering jars against the rich organic texture of the art. I assume it was added afterwards, and is not a part of the original art. It's the sort of stylistic choice which wants to be invisible, as unnoticed as captioning in a film. It is much easier to read, looking at a panel individually, moving through the reading, and the space of the settings, then it is when glancing at the pages as a whole, especially on a monitor where the bright white calls more attention to the font it surrounds. The lettering seems like an afterthought, like it was more useful to the artist to render the spaces of each panel fully, without covering up any space with text in the conceptualization of the setting's space.

The book's format and shape recalls European albums, but each row reads as easily as a daily strip. It's dense with information, paced out briskly. There's a lot of characters, and more thematic structuring and callbacks than normally found in something that's also an unceasing series of set pieces. If you have heard comics criticized for feeling like movie pitches, this has the level of craft and story of a finished movie, present within the comic itself. The opening flashback outlines a family relationship, explains the eye injury that's a part of their character design, establishes a context for playing games where you work out rules as they go along, and the antagonist's frustrated inability to comprehend and go along with that level of freedom. Later parallels are drawn between the logic of the rules that bind magic and the notion of legal scholarship. The ideals of law, as outlined are here, grant a sort of equality that then corresponds to themes set up in the previous volume about "life magic" as opposed to "death magic." The moral universe inside the comic seems crucial to its existence, rather than shoehorned in. There is never the feeling that the comic is professing a certain set of ideals and values it nonetheless is accidentally undercutting through poorly-thought out choices elsewhere.

This technical eye for envisioning is evident on the cover. When seen at actual size, it is clear that the background the central character stands before is a chamber of mirrors, reflecting him into a red-tinted infinity. It's not a "jump off the stands" kind of image so much as it is a "peer deeply into the crevices" one.

The concept of the Geis from which the book takes its name is a fascinating bit of Gaelic folklore: It's a curse that forbids someone from doing something, and states the consequences will be dire if this taboo is broken, but it also guarantees that the forbidden act will be performed, and this will be your undoing. The logic to it is a perfect knot, that binds a person to their doom, and makes them aware of it, a type of self-awareness of one's end as a forbidden thing they're going to arrive at anyway. It seems to suggest a visual analog in the notion of a hall of mirrors, and cutting yourself on the breaking glass until you bleed out.

The notion that you can't escape your doom, even when you're aware it will destroy you, is a true and simple concept it's easy to see the necessity of a term for it. I imagine an old Irishman using the concept of the Geis to describe why he can't drink anymore, and his entire family being bummed as they accept as fact that a relapse is surely forthcoming. The folklore resonates with a real-world parallel, but to whatever extent the comic extrapolates from that originating myth, it is to make a more complicated thing, which, as a narrative with room for hope, carries less existential weight for a reader to feel in their bones. While much of the cast dies during the course of the book's second volume, most of this happens off-panel, at the hands of the villain the story then disposes of. The adventure story the book is telling is more appropriate for children than a more realistic interpretation of the roots of the myth would allow. The Geis books would probably make a great gift for a preteen, or whatever age range is most primed to appreciate Star Wars. The parallel of fantasy elements with the real world application of legal argument might even be a message a parent worried their child's obsession with fantasy narrative will doom them later in life will find heartening. It's also a good bargain for your money at under twenty dollars, for a 120-page hardback rich with story and visual splendor.

There ends up not being room for psychological depth or character growth. To parallel the writing to the visuals, it's more useful for the author that readers recognize the characters by their sketch than to see them as fully-painted and fleshed out. It's established who they are in terms of how they function with regard to one another. They don't really change or grow, or at least they haven't yet. Their types are simple: Strong-willed young girl, flustered nerd, smug grandstander, rich bully. (The rich bully is the antagonist of the book, though the fact that his role in the society is to command the army is a fact covered by the first volume, which allocates very little on-panel time to him.) I think that this is fine and in keeping with the book's themes, of life itself as its own good, when opposed to death. It seems in keeping with this to not insist that the characters change. If your themes are about how life overcomes death merely by existing, survival suffices in lieu of a character arc. Similarly, the book's highest aspect, the part of it that succeeds in transcending its roots, has nothing to do with the story itself. The most redeeming quality of the book is not going to arise from a reader's emotional engagement with the story or characters, but rather the art. The best thing about being alive is not any aspect of a life that distinguishes it from another person's, but to experience a world of beauty for even a short time.