“Is it comic-y?” is a provocation Joel likes to throw at participants of the Barbican Comic Forum (the offline version of this book group which if you live in London you should really come along to). The obvious answer is “of course, it’s a comic!”, but for Joel it’s not the right one. I think what he means by the question is whether the book utilises the opportunities provided by the comics form, or whether the story is masquerading as comics when it really is better suited to being a TV series, film, or plain novel. My bar for comic-y comics is rather low, in that I think to be even remotely engaging comics need to utilise the basic tools of the trade (the page turn, the splash page, writing dialogue that fits in a balloon, and so on). Joel is after something a bit flashier, I suspect – the kind of formal ingenuity found in Scott Pilgrim (low-key one of his favourite comics).
The Infinite Loop fulfils that criteria. It’s written and lettered by Pierrick Colinet with art and colours by Elsa Charretier, who ran a successful French Kickstarter campaign to make it. It’s a time-travel story, and like all time-travel stories probably doesn’t make sense if you examine the premise too closely. Which is fine, because the time-travel turns out to be a metaphor for the oppressive course of history, and how it’s possible to correct it even if you can’t break free of it completely.
It turns out that comics panels are excellently suited to science-fiction stories where characters have to jump between timelines and alternate realities. Because what are panels but slices of time? And wouldn’t it be cool to have a character step out of them, and examine themselves and their situation from outside history? That’s one neat effect, but the creators are also prone to insert design elements into their work, for example their use of flow-diagrams to illustrate different choices the characters could make, and the different realities that spin out as a result from those choices.
It is, in sum, a very cool-looking book. It is also a dizzying read – certain chapters reminding me of the information pile-up you get in vintage Grant Morrison comics. And it has its heart in the right place too. The main character is a Rosie the Riveter-type who fixes time paradoxes. She falls head-over-heels for a mysterious Japanese woman, who as an ‘anomaly’ she is supposed to eliminate. Their lesbian relationship is treated by her former employers as an aberration against time. The ‘infinite loop’ of the title in fact refers to the way history erases LGBTQ people. The book is very explicitly a call to action – enlisting figures like Harvey Milk and Malcom X in order to raise the consciousness of the reader.
Occasionally the book is a bit too on-the-nose. Towards the end it rather artificially engineers an argument between a trans character and a relatively un-woke but well-meaning straight white guy. This reminded me of Emma’s complaint on twitter that too many trans characters in comics are made to explain themselves to a cis audience, rather than just be who they are. Likewise, the motive of the villains is unconvincing: “Conservatism is the best thing that happened to humanity, and I’ll keep fighting for everyone’s wellbeing”. That’s not a satisfactory explanation for homophobia or any other prejudice. There is a glimpse of a more interesting explanation in the idea that the community of “anomalies” imprisoned by the reactionary forces of history is also fracturing into “groups sharing a common feature”. The lessons of history haven’t been learned, even by its victims.
That’s a dark thought, and the creators don’t dwell on it. Instead they end on the optimistic note that a unified movement will be unstoppable – and that even those who are not victims are joining the cause. The story halts abruptly, and it’s not an entirely satisfactory conclusion (perhaps purposefully so). A bit like Scott Pilgrim, the formal inventiveness and humour is dialled back as the book goes on and gets more somber. Neither book is perfect – but they are both inarguably very comic-y comics.