When A Land Called Tarot showed up in our “To Be Reviewed” list, I was intrigued. The art looked very interesting–it reminded me of a combination of old French comics I’d see in Heavy Metal and a video game/Dragon Warrior-like aesthetic. It was only then that I realized that there was no dialogue. This was a totally visual medium, without any training wheels.
I raised my hand to review. I figured this would be a very interesting read.
A Land Called Tarot (Image Comics)
You might have already seen our interview with Gael Bertrand, but I’m going to cover my personal feelings when consuming this book.
First: this is a fast “read.” I usually read all my review comics for the week in a big marathon session, and then just pour a review out while the ideas are still fresh. But I read this one, and then re-read it two more times. It’s 120 pages, but it takes no time at all when you’re just trying to get the gist. When I went through again and drank in all the rich artwork and the multiple layers of detail, however, it took much much longer. Just look at this:
That’s the first page. Airships, a hero, and a sheep/bird/chocobo like mount? Okay. I’m intrigued. This is a fantasy setting, but with some science/magic going on–a Final Fantasy vibe, and a total callback to my childhood.
Then page 2:
Megafauna adapted as pack animals/riding animals, dinosaurs, humanoid duck creatures, and apparently sentient Russian nesting dolls.
By the second splash page Gael has done more crazy world building without uttering a single word balloon than most authors try to do in 200. He knows this medium, and he’s using it well.
Now we’re getting more wrinkles. Is this our world after some catastrophe? Global warming + hyper mutation = a new future? Look at all the layers and hints and mysterious pieces here!
Overall, this is an incredibly impressive book. This goes on for 120 more pages. Detail rich, mysterious, and epic hero-on-a-quest action is literally dripping from every page. I find absolutely no fault with any of the artwork, and if I were grading this book on that alone: 10/10. Amazing.
There is a plot here though. And goddamn, it’s hard to find.
On my first read-through, that bothered me. I was lazy and got to the end and said what the hell just happened? Why didn’t this spoon-feed me the plot points, and the motivations, and the cool backstory? I think I’ve become so used to the cliches in comicdom, that even though I rail against them on these pages on a regular basis, being removed from them was shockingly alien to me.
When the option for an interview came up, I submitted this question to ask, and I think the answer is very enlightening:
AiPT!: A Land Called Tarot is wordless and I’m wondering why that is? Challenge yourself to let the art convey the plot, or to let the reader drink in the full artwork?
Bertrand: I’m an artist first, so letting the artwork take center stage was one of my motivations. I always look up to guys like Frank Quitely, who has such a clear sense of space and action in his storytelling.
Also, I’ve always liked silent comics, I loved Caza and Moebius’s silent books as a kid because they forced me to interact with them, they provided a more immersive experience.
Finally, I wanted to make a book partially about mythology, and I was feeling at the time, that Joseph Campbell’s Hero Myth had been turned into a formula for Hollywood script writing and I didn’t want to tell a story following this same template.
Instead, I wanted to strip it down to the basic symbols and images of a fantasy world with no interference from text, and then try to let them interact and see what would come out of it.
This? This is fantastic. On my second read through, I spent time. I tried to figure out what the hell was happening, and why, and I found myself truly lost in every panel–and enjoying the fact that this wasn’t the usual dumb hero journey, and that I was in totally unfamiliar territory.
When I was about 7 years old, a family friend stopped by my house with a gift for me. He was coming over to visit my parents, and thought well, I’ll bring something for the kid too. Under his arm were about 10 2000 A.D. comic books. The big magazine-sized ones, and completely foreign to me–strange artwork, unfamiliar heroes, blood, death, nudity, etc.
I was stunned. I didn’t know that comics like this existed. Judge Dredd? Who the hell is this glowering weirdo? I didn’t know any of the backstory, or why he was a Judge, so using the context I could, I re-read them until they were tatters. There were huge pieces of the plot I would never know, as this was pre-internet, so I was on my own to figure it out.
I had the same reaction to Tarot. Now, I still don’t know exactly what’s transpiring here with the Knight of Swords and his quest. I also don’t have a deep knowledge of Tarot itself, so some of the symbolism is probably lost on me. Yet, overall, this was brilliant. Artwork that is rich and expressive and beautiful wrapping itself around a very mysterious story that I think only the artist could truly explain means you have to work for this one, and it’s rewarding work.
Here’s an example of some of that work that you should look for. Look at the Knight’s headdress, and then the Stone King’s crown, and try to figure out if they’re the same…and then look at the roots of the tree when the Air-gondola picks him up, and then ask yourself when any of these events happened in the narrative. SO CONFUSING IN A GOOD WAY!
You’re going to have questions and not everything is clear, so if that’s a deal breaker for you, this isn’t your book. If you can get lost in art, and let the story be partially implied, and partially what you make of it, this is absolutely wonderful.