Built in the telling

A ‘silent’ comic, which is to say a wordless comic, relies on the grammar of sequential art. This is a well-established grammar, with most of the characteristics of spoken language—it has a lexicon, a set of morphosyntactic rules by which lexical items are combined, and it has dialectical variations. Such variations are largely a matter of vocabulary, but they are also morphosyntactic—in my limited experience the largest such differences are between Japanese comics and everywhere else, but I imagine that’s a function of my total unfamiliarity with comics from anywhere except Japan, Europe and the U.S.A. I can certainly aver that European and American comics have a great deal in common—if you can read a Spanish comic, say, you can read a Marvel superhero rag without confusion. Manga employ a somewhat different set of conventions for representing movement, sequentiality, and closure between panels. In A Land Called Tarot Gael Bertrand betrays a significant Manga influence, but it is manifest in character design rather than visual grammar.

In effect, you might say, he speaks European with a Japanese accent. It’s entirely possible that Manga is also a powerful influence on his world-building, but as Manga shares with bandes dessinée a detailed and mimetic approach to the illustration of landscape and architecture, I’d have to be a great deal more of an expert to tease apart the various traditions on which Bertrand draws. The internet is fairly unforthcoming about this accomplished artist: he’s resident in the United States, and his name leads me to imagine that he’s French or Belgian, but he could be from anywhere, and it would be fruitless to speculate about the route he took to the style displayed in A Land Called Tarot. He draws stylised, cartoonish characters against beautifully precise and complex backgrounds, a choice which is as reminiscent of Hergé as it is of Hayao Miyazaki. Some of his characters have enlarged eyes, and a number of other markers of Manga character design, but his work has also been compared to Jean Giraud, and his figures have something of Giraud’s elfin purity about them.

There is a very clear narrative running through A Land Called Tarot—it requires a little unpicking, as the chronology isn’t linear, but it is an object-lesson in visual storytelling. When an artist is a good storyteller, the sequence of events, the movements of objects, and the dynamics between characters are all apparent, irrespective of the presence or absence of a verbal text. It is possible to clarify a story with text panels and dialogue, but it’s unlikely ever to be entirely clear if it relies on the textual component—a well drawn story can have its speech-bubbles re-written radically without losing its coherence or momentum. The clarity of Bertrand’s narrative is key to his world-building.

It’s easy to assume that world-building in a comic is simply a question of illustration, and that is certainly an aspect of it. There are detailed and expansive views here, of a fantasy world similar to our own in certain tropes of wardrobe and architecture, but also very different in terms of its range of inhabitants, its technologies and its cultural practices. While these images are beautifully rendered and imaginatively conceived, this is a comic, not a collection of illustrations. In comics, as in prose fiction, the processes of world-building and narrative articulation are mutually dependent: no world, real or imagined, exists as a static library of objects and practices—and no story exists as an abstract procession of events independent of the social, cultural and historical factors which form its actors and their behaviours. Stories which do not build their worlds diligently come out as generic thrillers or romances. Gael Bertrand understands this, and he offers the reader a moving viewpoint through his world. That the story has been given the name of its setting tells us all we need to know about his position.

That the land of the title is called ‘Tarot’ offers the reader a key to decode some of its meanings. This is a world rich in symbol, in which certain figures stand for concepts. The Tarot has never been much used for game-playing in Britain, so I immediately reach for a symbolic interpretation when I encounter it, but in France, as in Italy, the decks have always been used to play a popular and complex card game. In French and Italian decks the trumps, which are usually known in English as the Major Arcana, are primarily referred to by their Roman numerals rather than the images they bear, and those numerals are deployed as chapter headings in Bertrand’s book. I’ll leave the fun of decoding those references to the reader, but I think it’s important to note that the idea of a game may be as important to understanding this book as the ideas of ritual or divination.

Bertrand has apparently worked on video games, and that is consistent with the way that his narrative plays out. The protagonist could easily be the playable character in an action-adventure game, and episodes in the story conform to generic conventions in gaming, such as exploration and puzzle-platforming. There is even a sequence which makes explicit Bertrand’s interest in the process of environmental design for games, and the boundary-crossing that practice affords. I’m not suggesting the entire book is an allegory of a game, but I think it’s important to look to the ludic as much as to the vatic for an understanding of how the Tarot informs this work.

To examine the various symbols that are present in the comic, and to hermeneutically account for the images that are sequenced around them, would be to dispel its magic. There’s a certain amount of fun to be had in reading out the occult meanings of the Tarot from these pages, but it’s not a puzzle to be solved. It’s a place to be visited, a habitable space illuminated by the movement of its protagonist through its detailed visual milieu. In a few pages Bertrand articulates a place as coherent and complex as worlds that some fantasy writers have taken hundreds of thousands of words to outline. I’ve often emphasised the importance of language to secondary world-building, but Bertrand’s strategy—of dodging that issue altogether—is effective precisely because he employs a sophisticated system of visual signs as the raw material for his setting. It’s amusing to note that the one thing that nobody does in this book is to call the land ‘Tarot’ (or anything else), but it is certainly a land that is made of it.

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