guttergeek the discontinuous review of graphic narrative

November 2006

Rick Veitch, Can’t Get No (DC/Vertigo, 2006) $19.99, paper.

by Alex Boney

On the whole, Americans aren’t very good at talking about national tragedies. My uncle served in Vietnam, where he was severely wounded, but my parents never talked about it. For many in my generation, Vietnam was (and remains) a mystery war. I suspect that the same might be true of the present conflict in thirty years. But after September 11th, 2001, Americans had no choice but to talk about that day. The political and financial centers of the United States were directly attacked, and the symbolic heart of the country was covered in ash and debris. There was a moment of confusion, then a short time of harrowing clarity, and then the rhetoric started up at a fever pitch. The discussions taking place in the public sphere soon became redundant and unproductive, and we are where we are now in large part because we’re not good at talking about these things. Or creating films or television shows about these things. Or making music about these things (thank you, Toby Keith). The one medium that has successfully engaged September 11th in any meaningful way in the last five years has been comics. The twin anthology volumes titled September 11th 2001: Artists Respond (published by DC Comics and Dark Horse Comics in January 2002) were compiled quickly but offered a multi-faceted portrait of that day that was simultaneously thoughtful and visceral. A few years later, Art Spiegelman’s In the Shadows of No Towers provided the same type of insight, this time from the perspective of a single accomplished creator. And in the more recent Can’t Get No, writer/illustrator Rick Veitch makes the most convincing statement yet that comics provides the most effective way for capturing what September 11th means to a collective American psyche.

Can’t Get No presents the story of a man named Chad Roe, a CEO of a company called Eter-No-Mark that has created a marker that is truly permanent. The ink from the markers cannot be removed. In fact, the streets and buildings of Manhattan have been so marked up by Eter-No-Mark markers that New York City files suit against the company and sends its stocks plummeting. The story opens on Friday, September 7th, 2001—the day Chad goes into his office and receives the news that his company is spiraling toward inevitable bankruptcy. That night, Chad goes on a drunken bender and wakes up the next morning to discover that two art students with whom he had spent the previous night have drawn an intricate, full-body pattern on him with his own markers. He can’t remove the pattern, of course, and the following weekend turns into a Dionysian, hazy binge. On the following Tuesday, Chad is on the verge of being arrested when he and the cops who have stopped him see the World Trade Center billowing smoke. The rest of the novel follows Chad as he leaves New York and embarks on a surrealistic trip into dark, symbolic recesses of America. In broad strokes, that is the story.

But what marks
Can’t Get No as innovative and unique (even within the experimental Vertigo imprint) is that there actually isn’t a straightforward story—at least not in a traditional narrative sense. Veitch draws a sequence of illustrations which guide the story of Chad Roe, but the book contains no descriptive captions and no dialogue—nothing that explains what is happening in each illustrated panel. We discover background plot only from snippets of newspaper stories and headlines, and even those are sparsely scattered throughout the book. Instead, Veitch pulls the panels forward with word captions consisting of poetic verse—an extended, almost unbroken rhythmic chant that taps into the Beat poetry of the 1950s and 60s. There are times when William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg (channeling Walt Whitman via Ezra Pound) seem to be narrating the story. The captions reflect a widely confused, uncertain spirit of America—a time of aimless hope and impending despair—in the time immediately before and after September 11th: “The war is over. We join the wounded, limping home from the battlefield…Disillusioned with our own propaganda…That once promised us ‘Peace in our Time.’ We turn the last corner of home…Only to arrive at a crossroads…And a separation so vast…No familiarity can ever fill it.” In a sense, the language reflects a spirit not only out of place, but out of time. Just as Whitman conveyed the despair beneath the lingering hopes of the Enlightenment—as well as the urgent need to adjust the traditional, unrealistic portrait of America—the prose of Can’t Get No conveys a perplexity that perhaps can’t be expressed in a conscious, linear way. The rhythm of the language—and the intricate rhythm established between word and image in each panel—creates a surreal, otherworldly effect I’ve never experienced in a comics narrative.

Actually, there isn’t much about
Can’t Get No that I’ve experienced before. The language is poetic and the story is deeply allegorical, but even the design of the text marks a departure from just about every other book (comic or otherwise) currently on shelves. The book is 7” x 5.5” and lain out in a structure that adheres more to comic strips than conventional comic book layouts. Veitch varies the panel compositions nearly every page, though—an effect that further keeps the reader off-balance and invokes the type of vertigo that Chad experiences on his journey. The art, which subtly alternates between realistic and cartoonish, is some of the most polished and accomplished Veitch has ever produced. For a comics text this long (352 pages), the sustained consistency is surprising and impressive. The one major complaint I have about the book comes from a frustration I’ve had with almost every major comics company for the last 20 years. I’d love to be able to quote more of the book’s captions in this review, but it wouldn’t be terribly useful without page numbers. If Vertigo is going to continue publishing novels and trade collections worthy of serious discussion, then it should start printing its books with page numbers so that readers can have meaningful, productive conversations among themselves. It would be terribly hard for a group of people to gather (either in a book discussion group or a classroom) and talk about this book—or almost any other Vertigo graphic novel—when there is no easy way to reference a specific page or image. This doesn’t diminish the aesthetic effectiveness of Veitch’s book, but it does make the resulting discussion difficult.

Can’t Get No is a high point not just in Veitch’s career (which includes such notable works as Swamp Thing, Brat Pack, and Rare Bit Fiend), but also in public discourse about September 11th, 2001. Veitch merges language and image in a way that is jarring even for readers familiar with the comics form, but this initial unfamiliarity is effective given the subject matter. The novel forces us to think about how we make sense of lived experience and how we process that experience both in visual and linguistic terms. It invites a new method of processing trauma and disillusionment—one that pushes boundaries even further than Art Spiegelman’s landmark Maus. Can’t Get No is a book that needs to be read. And maybe it can help us find new ways to think and talk about that which has become so difficult for Americans to express.