As comic books have evolved, they've dealt with everything from massive alien wars to the pedestrian annoyances of Harvey Pekar. But they've always had a pretty standard relationship with language: Comics' text informs the images, and vice versa. Ideally, the two parts are clear and artful, creating an inimitable middle ground: an otherwise impossible amalgamation of image and thought. But with Rick Veitch's Can't Get No, comics venture into the realm of haughtily poetic literature.
Can't Get No fails fantastically at some things, and is remarkably effective at others. Single-handedly written and drawn by Veitch, it's a black-and-white epic that follows Chad Roe, an exec at a permanent marker company. Shortly before 9/11, Roe's company implodes, and he doesn't fare any better: After a wild night, Roe wakes up with every inch of his body covered with makeshift tattoos, drawn on his skin with his own indelible brand of marker. The tattooed, confused Chad hits the road, and so begins his rambling journey—through a surreal and broken post-911 America.
A friend of mine who tried to read Can't Get No summarized it in one word: "Unreadable." Which both is and isn't true. Yeah, Can't Get No is clunky and heavy-handed, and Veitch's lilting, dense prose—split into barely sensical snippets, and punctuated with endless ellipses—annoys. But something weird happens about halfway through the book: The words pick up a rhythm, and Chad's trip takes on an entirely visual life. With Veitch's words fading into the background and his images becoming ever more hectic, it does become unreadable—in the sense that, unlike most graphic novels, it's impossible to experience Can't Get No with the same expectations as one would have for a prose novel. No, this is a true synthesis—of barely understandable words paired with jarring images, of sequential illustrations leading the story, of text fading into the cadence and tempo of a background soundtrack. Eventually, Can't Get No hits a strange, fascinating balance, sneaking in a few profound messages and more than a few memorable images. Of all the twists and mutations that comics have taken, the one demonstrated by Can't Get No is a new one—and one that's unexpected, tough, weird, flawed, and welcome.