It’s comic book column time again and today I’ll be discussing the Gael Bertrand’s graphic novel A Land Called Tarot from Image Comics. Usually, I try to start my columns off with a short plot synopsis for the work I’m discussing, so that anyone who hasn’t read the work can follow along. This week, that’s not really possible, because one of the things that makes A Land Called Tarot unique is that it lacks a single official interpretation of its events.
The official synopsis on Image Comics’ website reads, “follow the Knight of Swords as he explores and meets with the inhabitants of a Land called Tarot.” The detail of the main character’s identity is just about all of the plot that’s set in stone. While the graphic novel conveys a charming and engrossing story in its hundred-some pages, it does so completely without dialogue. There are very few words at all. There are just three section headings (written in French no less) and a single sound effect. These, plus a handful of roman numerals, are the novel’s only non-visual cues as to the exact nature of its plot.
The graphic novel’s title is a reference to tarot cards and the associated art of utilizing them for occult purposes. The Knight of Swords is named after a tarot card, and the French section headings also reference specific cards (the Tower, the Magician, and the Hermit, to be specific). The book is full of images and characters that resemble other tarot cards, but an understanding of tarot is not necessary to enjoy the book. Even if one analyzes symbols and characters in such a way as to make direct comparisons with tarot decks, it doesn’t unlock some sort of specific key that is necessary to understand the story. Rather, drawing upon tarot cards’ meanings only provides grounds for interpretations of the plot, and different readers are sure to come up with their own theories regarding the story.
Bertrand’s use of tarot-related symbols and concepts provides possible hints to the novel’s plot, but it is still up to the reader to decide how to interpret those hints. The tarot theme is well-suited for a work which contains so little in terms of concrete facts and explanations, as tarot cards themselves do not have set-in-stone meanings. Each different card in a tarot deck can represent multiple different things, and those possible meanings and interpretations are multiplied by the positions one places those cards in while conducting a tarot reading. A Land Called Tarot, likes the card reading practice from which it draws influence, dangles not just one possible plot meaning before the reader, but many. The plot’s extreme susceptibility to the imagination of the reader helps to create unique experiences for different people who read it, as well as reason to go back and read the book multiple times. My interpretation and understanding of the book following my most recent reading of it differs considerably from my interpretation following my original reading of it. This is a book that begs to be reread, to be analyzed like a mystery, where the search for answers is a reward in and of itself.
As cool as this concept is, the novel’s ultimate success in engaging the reader largely depends upon the quality and style of its artwork. Fortunately, A Land Called Tarot looks superb. Physical actions, progressions in time, emotions, relationships between characters, and airs of suspense and mystery are all conveyed beautifully through a gorgeous JRPG (Japanese role-playing game)/fantasy anime-esque style. Bertrand has a background in video game concept art, and it shows. Much of the artwork appears to have been influenced by the aesthetics, adventure, and exploration found in fantasy titles such as the Legend of Zelda series. Different readers with a knowledge of anime and video games will likely find certain images and characters to have resemblances to several different other works. With that said, the novel’s art style remains unique and imaginative. Like all the best artists, Bertrand evokes his influences while embellishing his work with his own creative touches and concepts. The end result is a captivating aesthetic that feels both welcomingly familiar and original at the same time.
While all works of art are to some degree open to differing interpretations, A Land Called Tarot is unique in the extent to which there is almost nothing about its plot that can be pinned down as the definitive truth. It is a work that is, by design, a collaboration between the creator and the observer. Bertrand delivers gorgeous artwork, a wealth of symbols and detail, and a story that captivates even when it does not hold the reader’s hand. Or, if it does hold the reader’s hand, it squeezes said hand and says, “see me as you see fit.” The experience of deciding what one thinks the story means is a fun and rewarding one, in which the reader gets to become a second creator.
In many high school and college literature classes, searching a work for symbols and building an interpretation is an exercise in choosing from a small handful of plausible possibilities that one’s instructor would accept as valid. The search is about approval, about gaining acceptance from the teacher. In the case of A Land Called Tarot, the search for meaning is fun. It is for one’s own sake and enjoyment, for the purpose of engaging with a world on paper that is lovingly realized into its own sort of reality. The process of analysis and interpretation is freed from the hands of course objectives and monotonously similar dead authors, and thus mystery solvers no longer need to arrive at the same few answers.
If engaging with a work of art as both an observer and creator at the same time sounds appealing to you, check out A Land Called Tarot. You can find it online from retailers like Amazon or Barnes and Noble, or, depending on luck and location, at local bookstores. I highly recommend reading this book; I know I personally will be rereading it several times in the years to come.
Eric Cline is a gay poet, 2016 Best of the Net nominee, and the founding editor-in-chief of Calamus Journal. His debut chapbook, “his strange boy eve”, was published by Yellow Chair Press in September 2016. He tweets @ericclinepoet.