The Sanctuary

By Nate Neal (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-388-0

There’s a wonderful abundance of impressive and talented cartoonists crafting superbly thought-provoking comics these days. Moreover they are all blessed with perfect timing, by which I mean they’re more or less able to support themselves thanks to modern technology and markets where, in the past, the imaginative likes of Kirby, Ditko and even R. Crumb had to filter themselves through a system of editors, publishers and distributors to get their work published.

In this new arena ideas can take you anywhere and religious ideologues, self-righteous pressure groups and blinkered editors have only negligible effect: indeed, their assorted squeals of outrage or timid support for fresh thoughts can actually help get contentious graphic material to the audiences it was actually intended for.

Not that Nate Neal’s first graphic novel is particularly contentious or outrageous. Even though there is nudity, fornication, wanton violence and gleeful irreverence, what mostly comes through in The Sanctuary is the sheer hard-work and intelligent philosophical questioning in this primordial tale of a band of cave-dwellers living and dying at the birth of our greatest inventions… language and art.

Neal is Michigan born and Brooklyn dwelling and was one of the creative crew that launched the splendid indy comics anthology Hoax (alongside Eleanor Davis, Dash Shaw & Hans Rickheit) and has produced a string of impressive colour and monochrome pieces such as ‘Delia’s Love’, ‘Mindforkin’’ and ‘Fruition’ in Fantagraphics’ stunning arts periodical Mome. His high-profile commercial gigs include ‘Truckhead’ for Nickelodeon Magazine and Mad’s perennial favourite Spy Vs. Spy (originally created by Antonio Prohias and since covered by such diverse lights as Dave Manak and Peter Kuper).

Like kitsch movie masterpieces When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth and 1,000,000 Years B.C. this primeval parable is produced with a unique and supremely limited intrinsic language (which, if you pay attention, you will decipher) and which serves to focus the reader on the meat of the tale: how art and graphic narrative became a fundamental aspect of human cognition.

Don’t be put off by my jokey references to classic bubblegum cinema; The Sanctuary has far more in common with the antediluvian aspects of Alan Moore’s Voice of the Fire than with any “big lizard meets busty cave-babe” flick (although if you’re a fan of Quest for Fire, that film’s gritty, grey and darkly sardonic ethos does eerily resonate here…)

Largely silent and broadly pantomimic, the snapshot episodes in this bleak black and white generational sage describe a small clan – or more properly “pack” – of brutal hominids eking out a squalid and desperate existence about thirty-two thousand years ago. The tribal equilibrium is altered when a young female is traded to them offering the lowest male in the pack a crumb of comfort. Until then he was practically outcast having to steal food from the alpha males and females, who have been and continue to struggle for control of the group.

This omega-male has a gift and a passion. He commemorates the tribe’s hunts through art, but when the girl arrives he discovers a new use and purpose for his abilities. However, life is hard and hunger and danger go hand in hand. The cold war between young and old, fit and maimed, male and female is inevitably coming to a head…

This is a powerful tale about creativity, morality, verity and above all, responsibility which demands that the reader work for his reward. As an exploration of imagination it is subtly enticing, but as an examination of Mankind’s unchanging primal nature The Sanctuary is pitilessly honest. Abstract, symbolic, metaphorical yet gloriously approachable, this devastatingly clever saga is a “must-see” for any serious fan of comics and every student of the human condition.

© 2010 Nate Neal. All rights reserved.