Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Review time! with ‘Dega’

“In a field full of poppies I could dream you all away”

Dan McDaid is a good artist, and while I wasn’t sure if I’d read anything by him, Dega (from Oni Press) sounded interesting, and the solicit blurb described it as “hypnagogic,” and if you think I’m going to pass up something that’s hypnagogic (after, you know, I looked up what it meant!), then you’ve got another thing coming!

I’ve never claimed to be the sharpest tool in the shed, so when I say I didn’t quite “get” Dega, you’ll take that with a grain of salt, as you are probably smarter than I am. However, I didn’t quite “get” Dega, and maybe I’m not supposed to? The set-up is interesting: The book begins on a planet where a woman is tinkering with her downed spacecrft, trying to avoid the native fauna and trying to figure out a way off the planet. She has strange dreams, something odd is happening to her body, she finds a giant machine in a cave, and then some ugly humanoid creatures (who might be native to the planet, but we never really know) capture her and take her away. Then the book gets weird. It’s not a long book, and it’s not too hard to figure out what’s happening, but I feel like I’m missing something. Is the woman’s condition something important? (I don’t want to give it away, but it’s odd.) If so, why? How does it help or hinder her? Are we supposed to learn something about her or ourselves through the story? If so, what? Does the end make sense, because I can’t tell, although I have my suspicions about what McDaid is trying to say. The book feels thoughtful, but it’s hard for me to penetrate into the heart of it, so I’m left wondering if it really is thoughtful or just shallow. I honestly don’t know.

I’ve thought about this comic for a bit, as you knew I would, and I think it comes down to another descriptor that the solicit used when this was offered in Previews: “surrealism.” This is a bit surreal, and I’m generally a fan of surrealism, but this isn’t entirely successful as surrealism. I don’t know if that’s because McDaid isn’t up to it, which might be true, because, let’s face it, great surrealism is difficult to achieve. Furthermore, I think surrealism in a story format is harder than surrealism in a painted format. When I read a story, I’m committing to a plot and characterization, and I think most people would feel that way. McDaid sets up a plot, but then veers into strangeness toward the end, a strangeness that, for me, doesn’t pay off the narrative clues he placed in the earlier part of the book. So, for me, the plot is fairly slight, and even if it is, it doesn’t resolve in a logical or satisfying way. Similarly, there’s almost no character development in the book – we don’t learn much about the protagonist, and her plight at the end doesn’t hit too hard because we don’t really know anything about her. So it comes down to mood, and that’s tough to pull off, and I don’t think McDaid quite nails it. This is why I like surrealism in painting more than in narrative art. In a story, the unwritten conceit is that there will be a progression from Point A to Point B – yes, I know that it doesn’t always work that way, but that’s still the expectation. If the plot doesn’t work too well, at least we’ll get to know the characters and see them change in some way. Now, I know that in a “surrealist” story that kind of thinking goes out the window, but it has to be replaced with something, and this doesn’t feel like it quite does. In a painting, we get a static image that invites introspection. A famous surrealist painting is, of course, Dalí’s The Persistence of Memory. It doesn’t attempt to tell a narrative tale, and so we can sit and gaze at the image, allowing it to wash over us, and we can contemplate its meaning without worrying about a plot or characters. We might be wrong at deciphering the meaning, but that’s okay – once the art leaves the artist, its meaning belongs to the viewer. With a story such as Dega, the meaning seems to be tied up in the narrative structure, so there’s no grand tableau to contemplate, just panels that lead us through the plot, such as it is. It’s certainly not impossible to linger over each panel and ponder its meaning, but we’re conditioned, when reading stories, to string together the pieces and come up with a design, and that’s why surrealism, for me, is much harder in narrative form. While I don’t think McDaid quite sticks the landing, it’s an interesting attempt, and the story – as it is, without pondering its larger import – is intriguing. I just wish I understood it better. Or maybe there’s not more to understand. Could be.

What’s not in dispute is McDaid’s art, which is excellent. His design work is great, as it usually is. The spaceship looks like a wreck (which might sound like damning with faint praise, but what I mean is that McDaid does a good job making it look as if it was a functional thing that actually crashed, instead of just drawing random lines that don’t add up to something that could actually fly), the creatures are weird, the things that the protagonist sees in the cave are disturbingly alien and bizarre, and McDaid does a nice job drawing them in thin lines as a contrast to the rougher lines of the cave itself. There’s a very grungy feel to the landscape and the spacesuits the characters are wearing, giving us a good feeling of decay and ruin, which is part of the point of the book. During the protagonist’s dream, McDaid draws her in a mask, and just the mask and her vacant-looking eyes create an eerie and freaky scene. He uses nice, thick brushstrokes to give the planet a sense of weight and texture, and it allows the art to be a bit impressionistic in places, which is nifty. I’m not positive why he uses color in some places and black and white in others – in a few places, the panel is in black and white with just a few crucial spots of color, but there doesn’t seem to be rhyme nor reason to it. The coloring is the slightest bit murky – it’s not bad, but it does obscure some of the line work a bit, and the black and white feels crisper, even though the lines are rough. I can’t figure out the pattern – if there is any – and I’m curious how McDaid chose which pages/panels to color, and which he left alone. Overall, though, the art is beautiful.

I’d like to recommend this more than I do, because it’s certainly an interesting … let’s call it an experiment, but as with all experiments, the possibility of it going sideways is always there. Dega is a fascinating comic, and I’m sure I’m at fault for not getting it more, but the fact is … I don’t get it as much as, I’m sure, McDaid wants me to. But it’s a good read, and it looks great. Maybe that’s enough!

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆


  1. Bright-Raven

    Yeah, I read this months ago, and I mostly agree with you. It left me sort of wondering if the author left some key element out of the story on purpose for the audience to interpret what is there more openly, so as to lend more to the attempt at surrealism, or if I just missed something personally as a reader.

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