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Sci-fi stories often tantalize us with visions of travel to other worlds—and the promised glory that accompanies such journeys. Turning this familiar trope on its head, Afar, a new graphic novel from Image, written by Leila Del Duca and drawn by Kit Seaton, suggests that such dreams might be more nightmarish than we expect—at least initially. It challenges the premise that extra-planetary travelogues must revolve around the acquisition of mastery or power. Instead, the shifting worlds of Afar remind us that we are never less in control than when we leave the familiar behind.
Early in the book’s first chapter, a young woman named Botema begins to suspect that she is not entirely herself when she sleeps. Each time she closes her eyes, she unwillingly leaves her own post-apocalyptic milieu—a world of arid deserts and ancient technology—behind. No mere tourist, she occupies other bodies as she travels. To her horror, she often takes on monstrous forms. “I think I travel to other planets when I sleep,” she finally confesses to her brother.
Though the book suggests Botema will eventually master her gifts, we meet her at her most hapless, carried along by tides she’s helpless to resist. Asleep, she surveys whole worlds in the space of single panels. Seaton’s art captures both the wonder and the strangeness of these elsewheres with startling efficiency. Each image feels like a fragment of some fully realized world, however brief our time within its borders: Here, Botema stands baffled in the body of a humanoid praying mantis, hive-like skyscrapers looming at odd angles in the background. There, she swims below ochre waves in the form of a mer-creature as an enormous whale with fins like a bat’s wings passes above.
Brief as they mostly are—and unexpectedly as they arrive—these segments are the book’s true treasures, not least of all because they show what Seaton is capable of when she’s unleashed. Never shying from strangeness, she renders each of Botema’s destinations distinct with subtle stylistic shifts. When Botema finds herself among a pride of eight-limbed, two-tailed tigers, Seaton’s palette switches to purple and green, which underscores our protagonist’s literal alienation. Even the lettering plays a part: Those tigers speak in what appears to be a script made up of variously angled talon strikes. It’s indecipherable, but it suggests meanings.
Afar does not just spin this conceit into a glib fairytale about the easy freedom of dreaming. In their premiere, 168-page trade-paperback, Duca and Seaton’s work speaks to something more honest about our helplessness within the unconscious mind. Though Botema’s dreams—if that’s what they are—have a lucid quality, she initially has no control over where she goes or what shape she assumes. At one point, failing to understand where she is, she makes a terrible mistake—and to her horror finds she cannot go back to undo the damage. Her desire to correct that error, or at least to take responsibility for her actions, drives much of the book’s plot.
Duca and Seaton offer tantalizing glimpses of the scope of Botema’s universe and the possibilities that exist beyond the borders of her impoverished world. At one point, she slips into the shape of a bipedal hyena. Here, a colorfully-dressed gang of anthropomorphic animals (who resemble exiles from some unmade Miyazaki film) recognize the traveler in their presence. This brief exchange of mysterious messages (“Jemat appears to have been possessed,” “be gone, wandering soul”) is magical as executed here, as do other similar moments, because they suggest how much Botema still has to learn.
As currently structured, however, this storytelling reveals so little of Botema’s own world. Its deserts are peppered with the ghosts of some older civilization: semi-functional machines, still powerful enough to pass for powerful artifacts. We never learn where or when we are, partly because Seaton dresses the book’s characters in a seemingly deliberate muddle of costumes—here evoking Northern African apparel, there suggesting Japanese or Indonesian garments. The resulting ambiguity is sometimes frustrating, but also apt. It recreates the patchwork quality of dreams. Afar suggests fragmentary lives: richly rendered, but never fully known.
Every dream, the old Freudian maxim has it, is the expression of a wish. Here, it’s surely no accident that an unexpected kiss pulls Botema deeper into her nocturnal explorations, but also precedes her first catastrophic mistake. But where Freud held that the sleeping mind furnishes—often indirectly—those fantasies we refuse ourselves when we are awake, Afar offers more of a meditation on the paradox of desire. While our desires are uniquely our own, we can only ever be moved by them, never move them in turn. To speak of the “power of dreams,” then, is to speak of the power that dreams have over us, a power that both is and is not our own.
Assured and accomplished, Afar works because it understands the joy of self-discovery that accompanies this alienating dilemma.
Listing image by Image Comics