Luke Ramsey is better known as a fine artist than a producer of comics, andIntelligent Sentient? definitely straddles the line. Like David Sandlin’s work, this evocative book keeps a foot in comics without entirely being of comics, although the underlying narrative is much harder to pin down. Publisher Drawn & Quarterly describes it as resembling “a print version of Koyaanisqatsi; which is in some ways, fairly accurate — both works prioritize sensory impressions over story line. The plot is very much a background element of the experience, and Ramsey seems more interested in letting the reader assemble the pieces into a story, preferably with his or her unconscious mind, than in creating a cipher with a clear answer. Think of it as the equivalent of Chris Van Allsburg’s The Mysteries of Harris Burdick — a children’s book with a series of mysterious images, each accompanied by a sentence prompt designed to awaken the reader’s imagination — if that book were a deck of cards you could shuffle.
Each page serves as a piece of evidence of an ambiguous narrative, and Ramsey presents the clues in no particular order. Slowly, recurring signs and symbols come together to create a vague picture of a world from origin to destruction. A mysterious pyramid appears in the wilderness. Later, or maybe earlier, it becomes a mark of civilization, appearing on money and as a corporate logo. A river zigzags across a plain. In another image, it shows up on a milk carton. Still elsewhere, graphical elements suggest the same shape without directly representing it, like the reclining human figure who resembles the aforementioned river in one image. It’s a fun game, playing with these building blocks to make a story about the transition from nature to technology and then back to nature, and Ramsey’s art — highly patterned, horror vacui stuff — is easy to lose oneself in. Like Theo Ellsworth similarly abstract comics work, it both provokes and lulls your superego to sleep, letting your intuition stretch and meditate.
Unfortunately, Ramsey’s collaborative impulses interfere to some extent with this project. Other artists, including Michael DeForge, Jesse Jacobs, Daniel Götesson and Emmanuel Romeuf, each contribute two-page spreads starting halfway through the book, and although their pages are beautiful, they don’t fit alongside the ones Ramsey made by himself. That’s not to say that they’re aesthetically jarring. In many ways (color, patterns, even the Keith Haring-esque blank figure who serves as the “intelligent sentient” in question), they jibe just fine, but the subtle narrative that’s been building doesn’t carry through. The fact that these illustrations come just at the point when that plot is almost within one’s grasp is also aggravating. Perhaps it’s a deliberate choice, designed to slap one’s rational mind out of its self-satisfied complacency, but it still feels like a sharp left turn, and the book, short as it is, never quite recovers from this change in pace. Nonetheless, Intelligent Sentient?rewards the time spent paging through it, and its strangely oracular character makes a fine addition to the comics published so far this year.