Can’t Get No by Rick Veitch
Rick Veitch is one of the best comic book artists and writers most people have never heard of. I’ve already reviewed one of my favorite books of his, Shiny Beasts, a collection of short stories. He also worked with Alan Moore on Swamp Thing, and he’s sort of what Alan Moore would be if he were primarily an artist, I believe. Consider this little plug for Rick Veitch’s Can’t Get No: “. . . supremely, magnificently strange, and like nothing else I’ve read.” And that’s from Neil Gaiman, author of Sandman and many other works that are like nothing I have ever read! If Gaiman is willing to describe Can’t Get No in such grand terms, who am I to disagree?
Can’t Get No is a book I’ve read at least three times in as many years at this point, and it should not be a book I like for one simple reason: It deals with 9-11. I have not gotten to the point where I can read artistic narratives, whether memoir or fictional, that deal with 9-11. It’s just too hard for me, and I didn’t even have any relationships with anybody who died there, and I don’t have personal emotional connections to New York — I’ve only been there once. The few works I’ve read that tried to deal with 9-11 just fell flat for me, making that day seem less significant than it was for the world. Can’t Get No is the only work that deals with 9-11 that I’ve been able to read. This book is not ALL about 9-11, but still, if that’s a sticking point for you too, then I think you’ll appreciate this book anyway.
Can’t Get No is an out-of-print Vertigo book both written and drawn by Veitch, and it’s about a man, Chad Rod, who is on top of the world. The book opens with Chad’s biggest career triumph, and yet the reason for his success is shattered when his product’s strength becomes its greatest weakness, an ironic symbol for the life of this business(Every)man. Chad Roe then stumbles into his future in despair and wakes up away from home after a drunken night out. Representing everything two young art students seem to hate, Chad Roe, businessman down on his luck, finds to his surprise when he gets up the next morning that these two women have stripped him naked and drawn tribal tattoo-like designs over his entire body with a new type of permanent marker that is literally permanent: There is nothing that will allow him to remove the marking. He is a marked man. Can’t Get No is about Chad’s journey away from New York as a changed man. When he witnesses the attack on the Towers, he also becomes a lost man since his wife assumes he was at work in the Towers that day.
With no more attachments and with a mourning wife he apparently isn’t even thinking about, Chad is completely free to wander: He doesn’t look like himself anymore, he doesn’t feel like himself, and he therefore is not himself anymore, Veitch seems to be telling us. Chad has a series of encounters on his journeys that are varied and surprising and dangerous and emotional. He finds human connection in the strangest of places; he finds anger, hatred, and violence in equally surprising places. All I feel free to say is that the journey is an important one that will shock you with every twist and turn, but I don’t want to give spoilers.
Instead, I want to discuss the artistic technique of the book. Veitch makes a daring move that employs a strategic device that is only possible in comics: The narrative is told 100% visually. There is no dialogue at all, and the words in the black-and-white panels are separated by grey rectangles and by their content: The words seem to never directly comment on the scenes shown in the panels. All the words are poetic captions that seem disembodied, floating detached from the images. Each bit of text is only three to about six or eight words. Often the words are mere phrases, sentence fragments. Some of them are simple declarative sentences. Sometimes the words seem more connected to the image than at other times, but no matter what, the full connection, if it is to be completed, must be made by the reader herself. Overall, I would describe the running commentary as philosophical poetry, and the reader must read image and text together to create new meaning from these almost separate strands of communication — one visual and one verbal.
To give an example of this poetic philosophizing, here are the words from the beginning of the book with / used to mark breaks between the rectangular “word balloons” in the panel and // used to mark the shift from one panel to the next (because there are sometimes more than one “word balloon” per panel of art — the ellipses, by the way, are included in the text of the comic): “Even as it opens… / …the eye might recoil. // Fearing the temptation… // Of all that low-hanging fruit… // …on the Tree of Knowledge. // Better to stare straight ahead… // And affect the chiseled grimace… // That goes with one’s prescribed position… // … on the totem pole of life. // Better to crouch in an origami darkness… // Hypnotized by the endlessly replicating features… // …of your own amoebic face. // A multitude of tentacles curling… // And uncurling… // …in suffocating self-embrace. // Pleasuring oneself in some cavernous void… // That separates the bright dangling objects of desire… // From the cold, haunted necropolis… // …where the mind abides.” That’s ALL the text from the first seven pages of the comic.
As you can see, the text itself requires a lot of attention, much more than is usually demanded from a comic book reader. So, when I say I’ve read it three times, I’ve really read it at least six times. I usually start out reading text and images together, get exhausted, and then focus on “reading” it visually, paying attention to the narrative told through the sequential art. Once I know the story, I usually immediately reread the comic with focus on the poetic language with the images of the story playing more lightly against the conscious focus of my mind, a task I think would be easiest for those who practice mindfulness meditation (something I’m new to in terms of regular practice).
This book is a challenge to the reader, and it is also great evidence for those who want to demonstrate to others that comic books, what the late, great Will Eisner calls sequential art, are different from every other type of art out there. Most comics will employ this technique a few times in the course of a single story, but because readers witness this technique being used in isolated panels only, most people don’t notice that this technique has even been used (or that it is a specific artistic technique). Scott McCloud calls comic books the invisible art because so many of its unique, and difficult, artistic techniques are simply not noticed by readers, even by avid readers of comics, until they take the time to think analytically about what is happening in the art, a process of artistic awareness made possible by reading such rare books as Scott McCloud’s ground-breaking comic book texts on comic books, Understanding Comics and Making Comics.
Of course, another way to notice an artistic technique that is unique to the realm of sequential art is to take the time to read a work like Can’t Get No (or The People Inside by Ray Fawkes) that calls attention to a specific technique of combining words and images throughout an entire graphic novel, making use of that technique page after page for over one hundred pages. Such attempts are difficult to pull off without seeming like art done simply for the sake of art, but Can’t Get No, like the greatest of artworks, pull it off: The technique, as brilliant and strange as it is, is still done in service of the story itself. The story and the technique cannot be separated. To remove or change the technique would be to destroy this brilliant story of Chad Roe as he discovers he Can’t Get No. I hope you can track down a used copy of this out-of-print work of genius.