A Land Called Tarot | Review

Today I spent a rare Sunday morning off from work “reading” [1] a wordless comic, drinking coffee, and listening to the most recent Great Cynics record.

It feels like it’s been a little while since I’ve had this sort of open-ended free time—due to travelling and recording and my job(s)—and it turns out this was just the perfect comic to sink into and get away from life.

A Land Called Tarot , Gael Bertrand, gaelbertrand.tumblr.com

A Land Called Tarot, Gael Bertrand, gaelbertrand.tumblr.com

It’s not a comic I could imagine reading on the train or during a lunch break. It’s a switch-off-your-phone, Sunday morning read.

A Land Called Tarot follows the Knight of Swords (who, inexplicably, carries a spear anyway) through three chapters of exploring Tarot, a world which flirts with magic and science fiction, full of abandoned industry and vast overflowing forests, where he meets various people and creatures.  

But what originally got my attention is that A Land Called Tarot is a totally “silent” comic. There are no words (dialogue or narration - although there is the odd sound effect) and there’s very little plot to speak of. Yet, it’s a seriously immersive reading experience. Gael Bertrand’s artwork is detailed and delicious, evoking a Studio Ghibli style—and their attention to detail in world-building—and every page has so much in it that, the more you look, the more you see. You physically explore the land of Tarot by reading the art.

This, I think, is designed to trip you up; to make you question your own approach in reading—maybe even how you think of comics, literature or art. In certain fast-paced comics, the artwork is designed to be read swiftly, putting character and action in the foreground. Your eye naturally tries this with every page, scanning them for the relevant information to do with the plot—who’s in the panel, what are they doing, and so on—and, in A Land Called Tarot, coming up short. For example, on page one, you observe an array of fantastical creatures sitting and eating in the foreground, a crashed airship of some kind, and a blank expanse of desert. Left like this, you’ve gained a sense of place, but you’ll be lost by the next panel, which focuses on a completely different, purple-hued setting, and an approaching silhouette. Move back to the previous page and far, far in the distance you can see the purple-ish structure, and a minute figure on a horse approaching it.

From this moment, it’s obvious that you have to change your approach. The comic requires more attention to detail, a deep level of immersion, and a slower, more leisurely read. Rather than treating reading as a method for transparent communication, it’s asking you to make an effort to read. To slow down, concentrate, absorb and, refreshingly, to think critically about what you’re engaging with and how you are engaging with it.

It’s not a comic I could imagine reading on the train or during a lunch break. It’s a switch-off-your-phone, Sunday morning read.

Who is this magical frog guy? I guess we'll never know... 

Who is this magical frog guy? I guess we'll never know... 

You enter a colossal structure that glows with a light of unknown origin—alien, magical, or the remnants of a lost, but advanced, civilisation.

Taking it at this pace, the comic is incredibly rewarding. If you read it to follow a plot, or to work out exactly what’s “going on”, as though the wordlessness was a hindrance designed to test you, you’ll come away with nothing. There isn’t much plot to speak of, and what there is changes between the three chapters. It follows new lines, jumps around, comes to no real conclusion, and leaves you confused and (perhaps?) unsatisfied.

Instead, the way you move through the pages reminds me more of an open world video game than a traditional sequential narrative. It gives me the same sense of awe and adventure that the first ever Halo game on the original Xbox gave me, or the feeling I got when I first played Ocarina of Time or Twilight Princess. It’s as though you’re literally exploring a strange, forgotten world, rather than watching a character do it. It’s as though the Knight of Swords is your avatar. You enter a colossal structure that glows with a light of unknown origin—alien, magical, or the remnants of a lost but advanced civilisation—through strange portals, meeting guardians, village-people, wolves, royalty. Like in the best video games, you’re not told everything (or anything); you learn by exploring. Perseverance is the limit of the world. And perhaps nothing is ever really solved. You can only speculate as to the meaning of the strange symbols, unusual cultures; how certain structures got to be here, in the middle of this vast desert—this forest, this sea.

A Land Called Tarot perfectly captures an open-ended sense of wonder, and it’s a testament to the unique storytelling power of comics. And like any good piece of art, I bet there’s so much more to discover from a second sitting.

Image Comics

Image Comics


 

[1] Although I’ve made the joke myself about how it doesn’t feel like you’re really “reading” a wordless comic (and some people even think this of comics, in general), it seems pretty obvious to me that reading is the appropriate word for absorbing visual art, in almost any context. Fight me.