Challenging Taboos

Challenging Taboos

NAJA - Morvan & Bengal

Originally published as five albums (the standard bande dessinees format) in France by Dargaud, NAJA is making its appearance in English for the first time courtesy of Magnetic Press. Written by JD Morvan and illustrated by Bengal, NAJA tells the story of the titular woman who serves, when the story begins, as the “number three” assassin for a man named Zero.

Our story opens with Naja committing murder in France before boarding a plane for home—which in this case is Iceland—where a strange man (whom Naja only ever refers to as “He” and “Him”) ties her up. The series lurches forward, ripping through a couple hundred pages at breakneck pace. But while its plot is frenetically paced and doesn’t ever lose your attention, it grows more and more unnecessarily convoluted with each page. That’s not to say that the plot doesn’t make sense or that you’re not able to follow it. On the contrary, Morvan’s dialogue is oftentimes too expository, spelling out things that are already pretty clear with just Bengal’s art. In fact, a silent scene in which Naja (who lacks the ability to feel pain) has surgery performed on her, and clearly derives a sexual pleasure from the rarity of feeling pain (which Bengal renders with just the right amount of overtness), is ruined when the following page has a line “She had a bunch of orgasms! Four I think. Yeah, yeah, four.” Which sounds like me mocking and chiding it, but seriously? That’s almost verbatim the line.
But more importantly: there are so many moving parts for no reason at all—and the last thirty pages are just a villain going over his plan in detail so that the audience can pull back and say…”Uh…but why?” There doesn’t seem to be any reason for the twists within twists within twists that all conclude with a vague epilogue that implies some skin-crawlingly gross actions on the part of a couple characters.

I’d prefer not to spoil the twist-heavy ending of the book, but suffice it to say: it’s much more complicated than it has any right or reason to be, which was a letdown. Up until that point the book’s only problems were its narration and just a single scene that didn’t really make sense. But those were minor. It was doing a good job of building a certain mystery and propelling its characters deep into that mystery.

But that propulsion most certainly comes from the wonderful work from artist Bengal. On every page, Bengal shows up to impress, and impress he does. He’s able to communicate this impressive sense of motion with really simple techniques, and the style works wonders for the book. The best artist to compare him to that I think people may be familiar with is James Harren. Harren is one of my favorite “drawers of things moving” working today, and his comics have this great energy to them that sells that illusion of things in motion. Bengal’s figures have that same energy, which is difficult to capture. He uses speed lines intelligently but sparingly, combing them with certain objects in the frame appearing static—this contrasts those things in motion and gives their illusion a greater sense of depth.

Because of this, Bengal reveals himself as the perfect storytelling for this undoubtedly imperfect story, and not just because he’s great at action. Bengal is adept at crafting important and nuanced scenes where nothing more happens than Naja turning her head from side to side in an effort to fall asleep.

In fact, one of my favorite pages in the book comes very early on and what’s so great about it has little to do with the action. Though, the page does serve as part of an action sequence and the figures do have that lovely Bengal energy to them. Only the 8th page in the book, the page is almost entirely

Naja turning and running, and has been included so as to take a better look at it.

As you can see, there’s no dialogue or violence on the page. But there are four panels that need to be looked at specifically. The first panel of the page, the third panel, the fifth panel/the second on the second tier, and the tenth panel/the fourth panel on the third tier. All these panels hone in on an unnamed man falling to the ground, with the exception of the third panel on the first tier which has him as a smaller part of a larger composition (which serves to solidify characters’ spatial relationships). While these panels may seem unimportant, they’re actually a vital component of the page, which tells you a lot about an important physical component of Naja’s—her speed, which is called back again and again throughout the book. What these panel depicts is one single movement, and what it does is serve as a way to measure time. And, because time in comics is malleable and subjective, having benchmarks with which to measure how quickly other actions take place can be an interesting trick.

And what Bengal ends up doing with this usage is two things. First, it tells us something about Naja. It tells us that she’s both very fast (look how “long” it takes for her to make her escape) and is a professional—she doesn’t hesitant after she shoots; she turns and takes off; she’s done her job and now it’s time to go. But it also adds a layer to the action to the scene. Not only is everything in motion—speed lines abound, zooming across our figures—but it creates the same effect as slo-mo. We keep cutting to the unnamed man as he slowly falls to the ground, like the drip, drip, drip of molasses, and then cutting back to Naja as she takes off in the opposite direction. It’s not simply “She looks like she’s moving really fast,” but because of this technique she’s actually moving fast.
The book as a whole is this dance that walks the line between “Wait…what?” and “What a gorgeous page!” As previously mentioned, Morvan’s dialogue is overly expository, and the narrative conceit (as in: who is narrating) lends itself too well to clunky, useless lines. There are bits of drama that are telegraphed a little too early to be very effective, and there’s even a scene that Morvan cuts into were he straight up says “How did we get here? Well…let me explain later…” and then he never does. That’s not just me paraphrasing; that’s almost exactly how that line is deliverd. And while one could chalk stuff like the sub-par narration to the translation, and I’ll never truly know what it reads like in its original French, it’s more likely that the blame falls on Morvan. Bengal, on the other hand, delivers the goods. Which is what makes NAJA such a difficult book to discuss: there’s a dissonance in the quality of the story and the storytelling that is as wide as the Grand Canyon. But Bengals’ art really does need to be seen to be believed.

© Shea Hennum,

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