I was not entirely sure what to expect when I picked up Tom Neely’s self-published 2007 comic book The Blot. It is a beautiful and simply designed softcover book with no text on the front cover (and hardly any text within its pages), relying instead on a slightly unsettling painting of the protagonist, which perfectly relays the feel of the contents of the book. The 192 pages, mostly kept in black and white, are all gorgeously illustrated. Neely’s style draws on the tradition of classic comic strips and animation in the vein of Floyd Gottfredson and Ub Iwerks, pairing whimsical character designs with an eerie quality and a sense of dread uniquely Neely’s. As beautiful as the few color illustrations in the book are, it is the black and white imagery that shines through, fitting the story perfectly and conveying the initial fear of the mysterious ink blot experienced by our protagonist as well as the subtle humor present in many panels. Some of these cartoony black and white drawings managed to instill more dread in me than most traditional horror comics have done, and they are sure to stay with me for longer.
If there ever was a comic book to truly embody the feelings of an uncomfortable and relentless dream, this is it. The images and the techniques used by Neely all work towards conveying such feelings to the reader, and the wordless panels only reinforce the surreal and dream-like quality of the story. While there is nothing didactic about the story, it still possess a clear narrative path and manages to subtly manipulate the reader into sharing the feelings of our unfortunate protagonist, experiencing fleeting moments of hope and happiness despite the ever-present sense of uneasiness throughout the chapters of the book. These chapters, separated by solid black pages and carrying sometimes-enigmatic titles, serve to demarcate the different stages of metamorphosis throughout the story. This metamorphosis is chiefly brought about by the blot haunting the protagonist, an ever-changing entity that both hinders and aids him without any clear or discernible purpose. If the relationship between the blot and the protagonist is the main focus of the story, another central subject is the romance between our everyman hero and a similarly-cartoony woman, the only person to actually speak and a character no less ambiguous or indiscernible than the blot itself. She helps him control the blot, which now seems to have possessed him physically, turning it into a force of creativity and whimsy instead of pure destruction. Despite his newfound talents, the protagonist cannot seem to fulfill the desires of or even understand the woman he loves, and the joy they experience together is ultimately a brief one.
The narrative is riveting and fast-moving, but Neely never spells anything out nor does he force a specific interpretation on the reader. While his use of symbols is powerful, as when one character dons a mask to present an angry and unshakable visage, the characters’ motives and actions remain enigmatic. The protagonist looks like a classic everyman, and he is easily the most relatable and sympathetic character in the story. In many ways he seems to embody the fears and aspirations of the cartoonist himself, faced with the overwhelming power of the black ink blot. Without ever uttering a word he manages to make us care deeply for him, and in the end Neely’s story is more moving than one would expect.
I can hardly recommend The Blot enough, and I look forward to experiencing Neely’s newest work, The Wolf, a “painted novel” published in 2011.
For more of Tom Neely’s work check out his blog here, as well as his interviews with Tom Spurgeon at The Comics Reporter, with Kristy Valenti at The Comics Journal, and with Robin McConnell on the Inkstuds podcast. For a preview of The Blot, be sure to watch this YouTube video recently put together by Neely – good stuff!
All pictures in this review © Tom Neely.