onsdag 25 maj 2011

Thomas Ott: The Number 73304-23-4153-6-96-8

Swiss comics creator Thomas Ott does his comics on scratchboard (you can see video of his work process here), and does so very well; the medium isn't just a gimmick, he not only does very good graphic work with it, he also uses it to tell good stories – in pictures only; the narrative is wordless.

The Number 73304-23-4153-6-96-8 (or, in Swedish, Numret 73304-23-4153-6-96-8) is a graphic novel about an executioner who at the start of the book finds a strip of paper that belonged to the he just executed. On that strip of paper is a number: 73304-23-4153-6-96-8.

…Hold on, that's not exactly right. In fact, it's probably more wrong than right. Instead, The Number 73304-23-4153-6-96-8 is a graphic novel about a number on a strip of paper. At the start of the book, it is used as a bookmark by a condemned man in his Bible. He sometimes takes out the strip of paper and looks at it. When he's been executed, the executioner finds the strip of paper lying next to the electric chair and for some reason puts it in his pocket before he goes home.

The next day, a series of remarkable coincidences occur, all of them having to do with the number on that scrap of paper... A stray dog has part of the number tattooed on his ear, the winner of a marathon race on a picture in the newspaper is wearing another part of the number, and the phone number on a poster from somebody looking for the stray dog provides the next part, etc.

The man follows these randomly occurring numbers, which results in his life markedly improving, in terms of both money and relations. But then, something happens, and his life takes an increasingly bizarre downwards turn...

I won't reveal the ending, which is quite logical but only if you accept the somewhat absurd universe Ott's story takes place in. There is no particular reason why his life should suddenly improve so radically, nor why it should then so suddenly take a turn for the worse. One might think of it as punishment for killing people as an executioner, but there is noting in Ott's wordless narrative signaling that. Instead, it seems just the random cruelty of a capricious universe – which may of course be more frightening than if things happened for a reason.

This graphic novel works very well; Ott is a master of his craft and creates interesting graphic images that also work very well to tell the story. The story is logical, engaging, and frightening – although, like so many other "graphic novels", it contains roughly the story material of a short story, rather than a novel. (In fact, I kept thinking of a thematically somewhat-similar science fiction short story while I read it – but Ott's story is of course original and stands quite strongly on its own.)

Ott tells his story in a four-panel-per-page grid, which makes for a steady, very readable pacing, and uses larger panels comprising the space of two panels or a full page, when it suits the storytelling. The storytelling flows nicely without getting static, and at not-quite 140 wordless pages, it's a quick but not superficial read.

Recommended. This is well worth your time.

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