Abstract affective allegory

Like all the books published by ShortBox, Jonathan Djob Nkondo’s After Laughter is a beautiful object, printed to a high standard, its bold, two-colour cover intriguing and inviting. The ShortBox website describes it as a ‘silent’ comic, which is to say it has no text. While I’m not one for policing the boundaries of genres or media, this invokes one of the limit conditions of comics: if the text doesn’t really need the pictures, then it’s not a comic, but if the pictorial narrative can stand alone then it’s definitely not anything else. I enjoy reading ‘silent’ comics, and I’d be happy to see more of them, although they rarely seem to come my way and I don’t make any great effort to seek them out.

After Laughter is all about atmosphere. Its narrative is a rather abstract thing, and I don’t think it really constitutes spoilers to summarise it. So… object floats through water; object washes up against hemisphere; boy on hemisphere retrieves object, which turns out to be a spike (a kind of sharpened baseball bat, really); boy contemplates suicide with spike; boy punctures hemisphere with spike; boy falls through hole into blackness; boy streaks through blackness as a shooting star above a metropolis during a power cut. A comic like this is a poem, so there’s no paraphrasing it, and if you’ve read this paragraph you still have no idea what this book is ‘about’.

Nkondo is a capable illustrator, although some of his visual narrative takes a bit of working out (the opening, in particular). He shows particular skill in investing his protagonist with emotion, while keeping his face predominantly shadowed. In many cases his storytelling involves so many panels that it’s almost a spatialised flip-book, so it would be almost impossible to miss the sense of the action. He also conversely evokes moments of profound stillness, with several panels rendered completely (or nearly) black or white.

Sadly, none of it really spoke to me. This is a narrative composed almost exclusively of affect and of atmosphere, with the action so removed from the concrete that it seems inevitable most readers will interpret it as an allegory. But I have no strong feeling about what it may be an allegory for, and the emotional narrative is both so melodramatic and so non-specific that it struck almost no chords with me. I suspect that I’m not Nkondo’s intended audience, although I can’t really guess who is. The strength of his protagonist’s feeling seems to demand some detail, some concrete context: without it, I can only infer ‘major bad feeling, relieved by transformative experience’. This is far from an unrecognisable affective sequence for me, but every comparable experience in my life has been complicated, nuanced, self-contradictory, and lacking in closure. After Laughter (whose title may carry some clues, but I’m afraid I’m missing them) offers only the sketchiest outline of a story, with none of the dirt or observation that would make it feel even as real as a fable.

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