Set in the late eighties, Spike’s imagination is fueled by his fear of nuclear destruction and his desire to escape the terrible, but eventual, repercussions of the bomb, while younger Zebra, more playful and optimistic, uses his imagination to communicate with birds and to fly. Spike believes in the devastating power of the atomic bomb, Zebra in the wonderful power of magic, and together they are a fever dream of unbridled childhood, a naïveté not yet sullied by the adult world but well aware of adulthood’s impending burdens and troubles. On their quest they encounter the angst-filled, artistic runaway Joy, whose name is in direct opposition to her demeanor. A bit older than the boys and trying to escape a sadness that she’s buried deep within by exuding indifference and anger, Joy wants nothing to do with imagination or fantasy or other childish ridiculousness. In the someplace strange that the three find themselves, her vitriolic attitude gives birth to an enemy that threatens to destroy them and the fantasy around them.
This probably all sounds a bit confusing, but that is the nature of the work, and that is to its credit, as this is not a simple, straightforward story. Someplace Strange is overflowing with fantastical imagery, surreal ideas, bizarre characters, and abstract constructions and surroundings, all channeled through the eyes of children, amazed and scared, heroes and victims. There is an afterword by Nocenti that speaks to the genesis and motivations of the project, and of the connections that she and artist John Bolton had to the ideas and characters in the story. John Bolton’s art is gorgeous, bright and vivid, and you can see and feel the excitement, fear, anger, sadness, and happiness in Spike, Zebra, and Joy’s faces. Bolton has done much comic book work, though I know him best as one of the four artists on the original Books of Magic by Neil Gaiman, which shares many similarities of the phantasmagorical and metaphysical with Someplace Strange. His painted panels and full-page spreads relay the vastness of imagination, the fearful unpredictability of the unknown, and the beauty found in fantasy. He can shift from dramatic realism to abstract surrealism in a single panel, and his art balances the wonder and danger that exists in this someplace strange that our heroes find themselves. Bolton makes the unimaginable imaginable and brings Nocenti’s magical and dark ideas to magnificent life.
For me, the denouement, though it is cram-packed with brilliant ideas and excellent writing, gets a little long in the tooth, mainly because of the monologue format and that the sense of urgency has already passed. It feels disconnected from the main thrust of the story, but maybe that is the point, that these fears and struggles are eternal, and that the war against the bogeyman, against the possibility of nuclear devastation, against the callousness of adulthood, is always being waged. See, visiting someplace strange makes you think, even as an adult. Initially published in 1988 by Marvel imprint Epic Comics, Someplace Strange still rings true today. The aspects of the eighties apparent in the writing and art give it an intriguingly otherworldly feeling that can only come with the passage of time and serves to enhance the fantastical elements of Nocenti and Bolton’s creation. In reading Someplace Strange, we realize that, just like its creators, we have all been someplace strange before, and will, hopefully, someday journey there again. And, even if that journey is only through this book, it will still be memorable.