Tumult. John Harris Dunning and Michael Kennedy (SelfMadeHero)

Tumult is… well, tumultuous. A stirring, science-fictiony, high-octane and tech-savvy plot of deceit, espionage, and noirish seduction. A toothsome cocktail with a bittersweet aftertaste that throws a number of classics into a refined, contemporary crisp form. A zest of Lolita for first sip, and then a barrage of Highsmith and Hitchcok, as promised by the back cover blurb, but also Burroughs, Palahniuk, B. E. Ellis, and a plethora of direct references to other books, comics, films, music and even to board games, with the role-playing Dungeons & Dragons at the fore, unsurprisingly. After all, Tumult‘s core story spins around a woman with “split personality,” the popular misnomer for dissociative identity disorder. From such a popular standpoint, dangerous roleplay is king.

The protagonist and focalizer of the story is Adam Whistler, a creative director for a publicity company. The epigraph to Tumult is Dante’s opening lines for The Divine Comedy so Adam finds himself at the proverbial crossroads of midlife crisis. He is spending a Summer somewhere on the beaches of Southern Spain with his longtime girlfriend. Things are still, stiffled even. He has an accident, which leads to immobility, then immobility leads to getting to know a young woman (even if she is not a minor, the tension between this very young woman or even girl and experienced man is played out), followed by a torrid, quick affair. Affair and Tarot-reading – with the use of the most famous of the three major arcana as obvious metaphors for the actions to come – by young woman pushes Adam out of his comfort zone: the Fool’s plunge into the abyss in the Waite deck is as much a reflection of Adam’s own fall from the cliff, which occurred before, as a antecedent symbol of Adam’s abandonment of his girlfriend. So around page 30-something in a book with around 180 pages, Adam freshly enters a brave new world.

John Harris Dunning and Michael Kennedy - Tumult 02

That new world comes in the shape of a second noirish female figure. The first was the Lolita-like, Tarot-reading Tammy. The second is the Bacall-type Morgan.

John Harris Dunning and Michael Kennedy - Tumult, page 01

I can’t recall precisely where I read it, but one the most common advices in scriptwriting is that if you’re going to use clichés or coincidences, you should use them at the outset of your story, and not on its ending. Being desperation devices, they should be used to get you elsewhere unexpected and not guide you to them. To a certain extent, Dunning and Kennedy deploy a number of clichés in these first pages, but with such vigor and panache, dropping names and references in such an unabashedly pitch-fever frenzy that it all works out somehow. That rhythm cushions then the Byzantine, bigger-than-life, outlandish main plot. Morgan is actually Leila, a woman with dissociative identity disorder who has been a victim of a secret governmental-funded, conspiratorial program of secret agents. Not only are hidden forces eliminating everyone that was involved with that program, as Leila herself seems to targeted and, with her, the small troupe of colorful characters that make up her alters, i.e., the different personalities that she carries within her, like the proverbial Russian dolls that the cover of the book so beautifully depicts.

John Harris Dunning and Michael Kennedy - Tumult 03

At a given moment, the main narrative, which follows Adam’s dull life, is interrupted by a murder. The victim’s life is described, but we don’t understand how she fits in what we’ve been shown thus far. A little further ahead, the very drawing and coloring style of the narrative shifts dramatically, to shows us a little episode in what seems to be a more cartoonish world filled with vivid characters (see page above). Because we are also shown a few of Adam’s childhood memories and Adam’s best friend Marek’s cultural theory-filled analyses of popular films (a sort of Zizekian go at it), we become aware pretty early throughout the book that we will not be following a linear narrative. But those stranger interventions (the murder and the differently rendered segments) seem to hint at the possibility that the book will engage in a more or less experimental structure that will play with multiple styles, unresolved narrative lines, and a crises in meaning-making, perhaps mirroring Leila’s own shattered world. That would be very interesting indeed.

John Harris Dunning and Michael Kennedy - Tumult 01

But the problem is that at the end of the plot, after it is thickened time and again, the materiality of the visual storytelling and the structural edifice that seems promising and exhilarating does not keep up its complication. Quite the contrary, things end up resolved and clarified. The tumult is quietened. Those previous interruptions seemed that could break the naturalness of comics storytelling into a disruptive, burlesque variety of approaches that would clash among themselves and open up new vistas to the problematic manner in which the disorder is experienced. Or even moreso, they could be revelatory of how narrative comics are not the transparent medium to retell such experiences. But Tumult ends up to maintain itself within a classically organized plot, even though a fantastical, mind-bending one involving fringe science and spy agencies. Following Mark Cousins description of fictional cinema, Tumult should be read as a romantic approach, not a classical-innovative one.

John Harris Dunning and Michael Kennedy - Tumult, page 02

I guess that the structure may seem surprising and innovative for readers who are unfamiliar with more experimental and daring texts. Somewhat like when people praise Christopher Nolan for his inventiveness in storytelling techniques and time signatures, in a complete oblivion to the likes of Buñuel, Bergman, Resnais, or Lynch. This is not meant to create an hierarchy per se, or at least one that would represent consequently a value judgment. Nolan’s movies, as much as Tumult, are very entertaining. But the mind-games that they seem to propose are more often than not subsumed to a linear storyline and “neat” worldview. In the end, it presents a comfortable depiction of the world. In the end, all is well, one might say. The thrills of the confused lines were only there momentarily, the knots are worked out, the t’s are crossed, the heart contented. Ambiguity does not linger. A happy ending is tangible.

Kennedy’s drawings are, at one time, solid and dynamic, with a straightforward, poppish attitude to them. The limited palette (and its derailing into the smaller, “inner” episodes) is efficient and the page composition sober. Despite quoting Grant Morrison’s et al.’s Vertigo series The Invisibles, which also thematized issues of identity, multiples, social masking, and conspiracy-fueled action, that staple of the 1990s was somewhat less tamed than this one-shot book, but it will surely engage the same readers.

A final thank you to the publisher, for the review copy. [more, better images soon]

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