I started a dream journal at the end of last year, in hopes of gaining insight into my own psyche or, fingers crossed, the nature of larger reality. The closest I came was a dream where I tried to describe to someone the plot of the book I was reading, and upon waking realized it shared a summary with my dream in the moments before that encounter, suggesting an architecture that can only reflect itself, but not be built out. In The Marchenoir Library, Alex Degen puts the work in to lay out a real-world object readers can fill with their own dreams. The result is a numinous object with practical application, an orb to brain the devil with.
It begins with several pages of character summaries, the sort that would be in a Who’s Who portfolio, describing the heroes, villains, and supporting cast of its fictional Marchenoir series. The rest of the book contains the covers of the books in the series, front and back laid back next to each other in a series of spreads. The Marchenoir series does not exist beyond this book, and while a world of adventures is suggested by the titles of these books and their back-of-the-book summaries, there is nothing that constitutes storytelling in the traditional sense, no sequences that move from panel to panel in accordance with Scott McCloud’s definition of comics. Still it makes the same demand of its readers all comics do: that one fills in the space between panels, between word and image.
Covers get to exist in a more abstracted space, suggesting narrative obliquely but free to be less literal in depiction than how a linear sequence of images reads. This is where Degen’s compositions shine, indebted to the design sense of Tadanori Yokoo. They’re busy, visually rich, and reward looking at to review the harmonies of colors and form amidst all that is happening. These images have a standalone quality that feels more like “fine art” than any painting of Supergirl ever could. Degen’s color sense understands comics as a printed object. Gradients of dilating pixels fade one flat color into another, maintaining the feeling of a brightly colored image, while not neglecting the necessity of variety in color value, retaining an understanding how light and mood work. Thin clean lines retain traces of the shakiness of a human hand. The style arrived at feels improbable, a sensibility shaped by a lifetime of manga before arriving at a vision of comics that’s grounded in Steve Ditko’s language of conveying ideas. Each cover has its own separate title, placing it away from the American monthly serialization model and closer to the European album format, an idea reinforced as the images do not shy away from depicting cigarette smoking, nipple outlines, or flaccid dicks. Then again, sometimes the word “Marchenoir” is replaced with cyrillic or kanji. The reader is allowed to be baffled, that’s part of the game. You get to look at images and think “I have no idea what this would be about” and then read a summary of a plot strange enough to make sense of it. The tone mixes surrealistic provocation with winks to genre, reminiscent of such all-time personal favorites as Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol or Michael Kupperman’s Snake And Bacon’s Cartoon Cabaret. By extension, it speaks a similar language to any number of older works investigation would reveal to be tedious, incoherent, or both.
It’s easy to imagine a book of fictional comics covers being attempted by any number of people who do not have nearly enough ideas to pull it off. Degen understands that the key to making comics or surrealism that works requires not just imagination, but also emotional resonance. It’s because of this that the book feels less like a pitch document and closer to comics-adjacent work like Henry Darger’s, or tarot cards. Tarot cards appear at the endpages of the book, as details in a few covers, and as the focal point of one particular album, where they are posited as a sort of threat - that to have a fortune read and future foretold presents a danger, when one reads narrative into symbolism. This is how comics’ language of signs generally works, but what’s hinted at here is the liberatory power of symbols ungoverned by specificity.
References are made in the character synopses to characters being in large amounts of debt. Throughout the story summaries are vague references to the menaces of politics and “the cultural climate.” These are the nefarious things of reality that lead us to seek escape in dreams, concepts laden with enough menace to break the spell. Each summary ends with a question, often of plot points the book might answer, (“What is the secret ingredient in the wine that animates dead flesh?”) but also encompassing more existential laments: “Why do things have to be this complicated?” Various questions exist at a midpoint between these poles. Stories tend revolve around threats to characters’ identities, identity being a concept that’s abstract in some ways and literal in others. The perils faced often involve being lost inside a precarious and collapsing dream.
While traditional storytelling would connect a reader to the protagonist through closely observing her as she makes her way through the world, a reader’s connection to Marchenoir is based on the idea of her, making her way into these brief realities, in danger of losing herself. As a comic book fan, entering into the reality of a comic book remains a constant danger: one pursues a dream of a platonic ideal, only to be left with just so much garbage. The book’s rejection of traditional comics storytelling implicitly rebukes not just Scott McCloud indebted pedants, but the sort of comics reader whose desire to escape reality traps them in a cycle of consuming unsatisfying garbage. All you need of The Marchenoir Library is what Degen provides, a outline of a set of ideas. A reader might wish for a real world version of a complete Marchenoir library, but why? Such consumptive habits only serve, ultimately, as ways of furnishing a tomb. It would not be a productive use of the artist’s time to draw the thousands of pages of Marchenoir comics described here, as a more conventional approach would be boring and at odds with the content as it’s suggested here.
The book makes an argument I always feel too exhausted to have with people whose vision of the medium seems needlessly obsessive and nostalgic. It posits instead that the modern comics landscape is continually generating exciting and invigorating work of a kind unimaginable at any point in the medium’s history.