COMICS: John Reviews “Can’t Get No” by Rick Veitch

While there were many comics that dealt with aspects of the tragedies that befell the U.S. on September 11, 2001 (see 9/11: Artists Respond, 9/11: Emergency Relief, and The 9/11 Commission Report – Graphic Edition) Rick Veitch’s Can’t Get No is the only original graphic novel related to the subject (albeit loosely) that i could find. It does in fact meet the criteria for an OGN: It is a long-form fictional story printed as a single work (rather than a collected edition, such as Watchmen, or a graphic periodical/pamphlet such as “Adventures of Superman.) But is it any good? I invite you to listen to my reaction, then offer your own.

First, a very important plot breakdown. When I say ‘Spoilers on’, I mean it. if you want to avoid them, jump down to where I say ‘spoilers off’.

SPOILERS ON!

Can’t Get No is the story of Chad Roe, a businessman of indeterminate job description working for one of the world’s largest marker companies. He (or someone on his team) invents a marker so strong that its markings are completely and utterly indelible. Sounds great, right? Until vandals get hold of them and start using them to deface everything in sight! The resulting business and PR disaster leads to Chad’s dismissal from the now-barely-afloat company. Chad attempts to drown his sorrows, and ends up drunkenly stumbling back to the apartment of two progressive ‘bohemian’ women who draw tribal markings all over him after he loses consciousness. Literally marked with shame, Chad cannot go home to his wife and joins the bohemian women on their trip to a rave/festival in New York. They are pulled over by the police on the highway leading to the City, and are terrified of being caught with the drugs they have stashed in the car. Chad steps out of the car to talk to the officer…

… and then 9/11 happens.

After the crash (and a not-insignificant amount of drugs,) Chad is awash in a sea of emotions, sensations, and visual storytelling devices that eventually carry him to a bizarre Bicentenial Theme Park, where he crawls inside the gaping hole of a gigantic JFK bust and makes out with a disfigured woman dressed as Jackie O. His journey continues in a similar vein, until finally he discovers at the festival that there IS a way to remove the markings! A certain combination of household chemicals will remove them, and the marker company recoups its expenses by bottling the solution and selling it at a premium. Chad is re-hired (and handsomely rewarded for his discovery) but knows that he has seen, done and learned so much over the past few days that life will never be the same.

SPOILERS OFF !!

I bothered to lay out the entire plot of Can’t Get No (such as I was able to understand it) because it will mean more when I tell you that everything I know about the story I learned from the pictures. I would have loved to pick up the story based on the words alone (or ideally the words and pictures together), but Rick Veitch uses an approach to storytelling in Can’t Get No that I have never seen before or since. There is no dialogue in the entire story. None. There isn’t even any plot-related narration by Chad or an impartial narrator. Instead, an epic poem that spans the length of the book is broken into caption-boxes throughout each panel of the story. These caption boxes are designed to break up the poem into stanzas, and are supposedly placed such that the words echo the themes, motifs and tone of each panel. Sounds great, right? Unfortunately, the execution left me completely dissatisfied.

The poetry felt too crammed full of literary devices of all sorts: imagery (somewhat redundant in a graphic novel), metaphor, symbolism, allegory, personification, parallelism, etc. You cannot take any of the words in the caption boxes at face value, because they are all strategically used to work on more subtle levels. My problem with this is the same as with many works that I find pretentious: If a story cannot work on its most basic level, it fails as a story. I don’t care how beautiful the subtext, themes, tone, symbolism or allegories are. I have never believed that a creative work is worthy of praise if the observer must ignore or “tune out” an entire aspect of the work to enjoy it (see: bands with ear-punishing vocals, yet supposedly deep and life-changing lyrics.) Perhaps it’s because I can’t see the hidden picture in those Magic Eye posters without causing my eyes great pain, and that bias has extended to any creative medium which only works on subtle levels rather than both subtlely and overtly. In this respect, Can’t Get No categorically fails to entertain me.

I’m not the only one, either (EDIT: But I’m definitely in the minority on the internet.) A few reviews I’ve found echo my sentiments perfectly, and some only to a certain extent, but perhaps I’m selling the work short. There are many positive reviews as well, from people who apparently “get it” much better than I do. Who knows? Perhaps I really am incapable of appreciating Can’t Get No the way it was meant to be apreciated. Or perhaps not.

To paraphrase the fictional version of Lester Bangs from Almost Famous, Rick Veitch’s contribution to 9/11: Artists Respond (entitled “I Never Thought of Myself as a Hero”) is six pages long. It needs nothing. But it takes him only six pages to accomplish what Can’t Get No takes 352 pages to not accomplish.

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One Response

  1. “see: bands with ear-punishing vocals, yet supposedly deep and life-changing lyrics.”

    Hee! Very nice example there.

    I also wanted to say that (a) I never want to read this comic book, and (b) I love your ending sentences to your posts. You know exactly how to end your thoughts well and with panache. I sometimes feel like my posts taper off at the end, but yours always manage to invigorate me and make me want to read more of what you wrote while simultaneously ending the current line of thought. Just thought I’d mention that!

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