You Can’t Bring Work to Home In “Bliss #2”
So, Bliss #1 acted as an introductory issue. You met the main characters, you got to know the setting of Feral City, and that Lethe, Greek Goddess of Oblivion, plays a huge role. Although, issue one mostly focused on the villain hero, Benton O’Hara, and his backstory. Our narrator is his son, Perry, desperately urging a courtroom full of people who, rightfully, want Benton dead for murdering their loved ones. The central theme of Bliss is Forgiveness, and I felt that was a hard sell given both the lack of information and heavily biased viewpoint. I concluded my review on a positive hope, expressing hope that future issues would complicated both whether Benton deserves forgiveness and the Lethe mythos which were only slightly mentioned.
I’m happy to report that Bliss #2 does succeed, mostly, on the former while dropping more hints on the latter. First though, let me talk about Caitlin Yarsky’s art. If you read my previous review, it should come as no surprise how excellent it is. The trademarks are all on display: A detailed gothic aesthetic, fluid motion, unique character designs, invocative body language and facial expression, and ornamented panel layouts that effortlessly decompress the narrative. I think all of Yarsky’s best qualities can be summarized by the very first page.
Just marvel at how the oasis is both extremely detailed, yet maintains organic fluidity. The color choice invokes a deep supernatural feeling, its radiancy both alluring and intimidating. The silhouetted figures below are placed in a way where they aren’t overlooked, yet still show just how massive this structure is. This image alone should convince you of the overall quality of the art.
Even with the familiar hallmarks, Yarsky still manages a few new surprises in her bag of tricks. In one scene, for example, Benton is waking through a tunnel and starts having visions. They start sweet and idyllic, him and his family together, happy. This is Benton’s guiding light, a reminder of the greater good he’s sacrificing his humanity for; a point made more explicit by Perry’s narration. But the visions soon turn dark. They become memories of all the people Benton’s killed. No matter how far he runs, every monstrous act he’s committed follows him. The nightmare doesn’t stop until he drinks more Bliss.
Interestingly, these memories are presented as emerging from eggs similar in color to the orbs from issue #1, and just as grotesque. I’m not sure what the shape of an egg is supposed to symbolize, but it sure does look cool and shows without telling that Benton is haunted by guilt. This also suggests that, perhaps, the effects of Bliis are not permanent. In the story, Bliss is supposed to be a drug that wipes away dark memories. The three reptilian humanods whom serve Lethe utilize this drug for witnesses or, in Benton’s case, to keep his mind at ease. It’s how they keep Feral City under their control. Ignorance is bliss, right? Or maybe not so much.
It’s a nice way of visual world-building strong enough to imply without spelling it out. Clearly, the storytellers trust the reader to come to their own intrepretations. It’s now a matter of keeping an eye on how this develops, whether or not it has bigger implications later down the road.
The images of this scene are so strong, they are enough to communicate to the reader how Benton feels guilty. This doesn’t make Perry’s narration unnecessary though. What better way to argue that his father wasn’t a heartless? It’s certainly significant to the main theme of Forgiveness, but I’ll save that discussion for later.
Another neat trick that Yarsky pulls, one that I hope doesn’t go unnoticed, is her use of micro sequentials. There’s probably a better term for that, but what I mean is decompressing seemingly simple actions that, as a result, makes movement appear gradual. Usually, these are done with 3-4 panels and put a lot of emphasis on seemingly mundane actions, yet because of their gradualness it builds up a strong emotion behind them. Whether that be happiness or guilt, the impact is felt, not like a ton of bricks but more of a gentle wave. I think how it’s formatted into a page, as smaller panels comparative to the rest, is what makes it so deceivingly effective. It just goes to show how the small moments matter as much as the big ones.
With that, it’s time to talk about Sean Lewis’s writing. First off, I want to address how one of the major criticisms I had for issue #1 is not just improved, but also the best part! When Mable O’Hara, Benton’s wife and Perry’s mother, was first introduced, I initially felt disappointed because my expectations were high given Lewis and Yarsky’s previous series, Coyotes. However, in this issue, Mabel becomes a fully-fledged, active character. It all starts with an argument between her and Benton.
Benton comes home after another assignment and, while talking to Perry, has a mental breakdown, and he runs off. A little later, he comes home and Mabel is waiting outside for him. She is pissed off. It’s not because of him running off though. Mabel knows Benton is hiding something from her and wants to know what. The way she delivers this interrogation, still loving Benton while not having his bullshit, is simply badass! Lewis’s writing is so poignant, and Yarsky’s body language equally so, that if Mabel were an actor, this would be an Oscar-winning performance. By the time she delivers her ultimatum, I was fist-pumping the air. This is my favorite scene in Bliss #2 and, honestly, I would rank it highly based off of this scene alone.
The only criticism I have is that there are minor formatting errors. For example, there is a balloon where the dialogue is slightly off to the right instead of the center. It’s easily overlooked though, certainly not the massive eyesore I’ve seen in some comics with regards to lettering.
God, I get a panic attack just looking at that page.
Anyway, for the most part, the characters are all very well-written and consistent. Benton is the conflicted murderer that just wants to provide for his family. Perry is still the faithful son trying to save his father’s life. There is an outstanding side character, one of Benton’s victims. Despite her brief existence, she is a fleshed out character, an activist risking everything to bring down the corruption in Feral City. I couldn’t help but feel so compelled by the gusto this woman had even in the face of death. It just goes to show you how memorable a side character can be.
So, technically, everything is all well and done, right? That’s great, but the real meat of Bliss #2 is the theme of Forgetting. Going back to the opening image of a bizarre tree, Perry narrates how all human societies have a tendency to forget the darkest chapters of their history. There are scientific explanations, but also mythical ones such as Lethe. Next page, Perry continues on his speech, transitioning to how forgetting the past allows us to survive.
We see an image of a family at Thanksgiving, yelling at each other; pedestrians walking on a street, passing by a homeless man and his dog; people minding their own business on a subway, ignoring a woman begging for change; a group of boys living in squalor, yet they find time to enjoy a ball game. What all of these scenes show is the conflicting reality of Forgetting. On one hand, forgetting can allow us to continue enjoying life. On the other, ignoring the past can cause us to become oblivious of the injustice around us. In Benton O’Hara’s case, it can effect personal relationships too.
Benton can drink all the Bliss he wants, but it’s not permanent. His crimes re-emerge as haunting visions, which leads to drinking even more Bliss, and I’m guessing that’s definitely not going to be good later on. Worse yet is how this affects his home life. I already talked about his argument with Mable, but it’s also create distance between him and Perry. He may not be abusive, but his sporadic behavior and refusal to tell the truth is still hurting them. It also affects Benton’s relationship with the reader. We want to be sympathetic because we know the circumstances of why he is a murderer. At the same time, though, the aftermath of Benton’s actions make that sympathy uncomfortable if not completely burnt away.
Another major criticism in my review of issue #1 was how the narrative is seemingly biased toward Benton, not giving the other side of the equation–that of the victims–as proper representation as Perry’s. It made the central theme of Forgiveness seem too one-sided. However, issue #2 complicates this by making Forgetting complicated as well. We are shown one of Benton’s victims, we get to know her; we see how his actions affect his family, and how self-destructive he has become. Yes, you can make the argument that Benton is enslaved to servants of Lethe, but that doesn’t mean he is guiltless either.
Whether or not Forgiveness is completely out of the question, Bliss #2 makes the answer uncertain. We can forget the past, but that doesn’t make the atrocities go away. We cannot just ignore their consequences. Eventually, they come back, repeat themselves, and nothing gets better. We do not forgive. We do not move on.
Sean Lewis flawlessly explores this theme of Forgetting in such a riveting way that doesn’t feel forced. It comes out naturally, allowing the story to be entertaining and trusts the reader to ponder the deeper implications. I mean, that is what I did just now. Maybe it is all gibberish, but the fact I had such profound thoughts should proof how Bliss, much like all of Lewis’s comics, inspire me to think critically. This is the kind of comic I want to read.
The last thing to bring up is the world building. Much like the first issue, Bliss #2 has sprinklings of it, mostly visual, mostly visual ones. The suggestion that the effects of Bliss aren’t permanent, how Bliss is a known drug throughout Feral City, that the servants of Lethe fully control, and, to a larger extent, use it to control the city itself. There isn’t much else concrete until a twist at the end, which I’m not going to give away because it completely turns the tables of the story. All I will say is that things are about to rev up pass eleven.
Much like the previous issue, this one is more focused on Benton and his family. The larger threat of Lethe and why Feral City is such a big part of her plot to destroy the world, is still just finally boiling up. As much as I enjoyed issue Bliss #2, that the barrel needs to go off on this powder keg. We understand enough about our main character, let’s have something happen. Let us explore the interesting ways the mythology of Lethe is implemented into the narrative.
Bliss #2 manages to be a terrific follow up to an audacious debut, expanding upon every element introduced previously. Where this goes in the next issue, I have no idea, which is exciting. If the ending is any indication, Hell is coming to Feral City, and no one will remain blissfully ignorant for long.