What would be a person’s worst fate? To live without even a hint of hope, not even its notion, or carrying onwards, forever, with just enough hope to see it thawed at every turn? Never crushed into absolute submission, but just slipping away, slowly, slowly… leaving but the smallest trickle to, in a new turn, give you just enough hope to go down yet another corridor?
To “live,” in The Abaddon, is a moot point.
Israel-born illustrator Koren Shadmi’s latest project, a 200-plus page book, follows a young man named Ter as he arrives at a new apartment, where he will meet a strange cast of misfits, with whom he will have to make his best efforts to relate, at the same time that he will have to escape the hazy feelings of misremembrance and aimlessness. How did he arrive here? Why does he have to be here? How can he escape? Something is not completely right, but neither Ter nor the readers will be able to put their fingers on it. Conflict ensues with each and every housemate, but above all with himself, as Ter tries his best to capture the memories of what seems to be his past, discarded life.
Extra-textual information seems to point out that Shadmi based his work on Jean-Paul Sartre’s play Huis Clos, which premiered in 1944, and whose most common English translation is No Exit. I’d like to consider this play for a bit. “Huis Clos” is a French legal expression to refer to court proceedings that are not open to the public. In English, this is called “on camera.” There is at least a television filmed version by Philip Saville, from 1964 (available on YouTube) that uses that legal term as its title. Furthermore, and wonderfully so, it stars Harold Pinter.
The play shows a man called Garcin arriving at what seems to be a hotel room, which he will share with two women who arrive after him: the mischievous lesbian Inès Serrano, and the falsely naive Estelle Rigault. Throughout the play, these characters make themselves known in both their shifting alliances and confrontation, in a clear illustration of Hobbes’ bellum omnium contra omnes. For, you see, these characters find themselves in Hell. A very particular depiction of Hell, to be sure. After all, this is the play where one finds Sartre’s famous dictum, “Hell is other people.”
While enclosing people in a locked room and waiting to see how they fare or end up at each other’s throats is not properly an original thing, even less so in modern theater, Sartre’s play would become extremely influential, at least in its basic premise and structure, specifically in the horror film genre (remember the original Cube film?) So it comes as no surprise to see a book-length comics treatment that turns the absurdity and confrontational capacity of such a premise up to eleven.
As Sartre himself explained, in a preface for a recording of the play (found in Sartre on Theater), “there are a vast number of people in the world who are in hell because they are too dependent on the judgment of other people.” This followed a previously stated idea that the best way to know ourselves is always through other people, other people’s judgment. We judge ourselves through the mirrors that other people bring up for us. We are trapped in those images, as Sartre’s characters are trapped in their room.
The Abaddon keeps this idea of judgment and the small, tight number of people. But with significant changes. From Sartre’s original economy of space and actors, Shadmi extrudes a wider setting. Contrarily to the French philosopher, who is engaged in digging as much as possible into his character’s psyches through dialogue, individual memory, and interaction, Shadmi prefers a somewhat more conventional structure with a rather feeble plot and different levels of knowledgeability. For instance (you may consider the next part a spoiler), in Huit Clos, both the characters and the audience/reader know pretty early that they are dead and in a sort of limboesque Hell (Garcin himself wonders where the torture devices are), so the absence of hope gives way to a cynical stance. The Abaddon, on the other hand, follows a path akin to Lost, The Others, and that sort of thing. Hope is not completely lacking. It’s a small amount, but just sufficient enough to keep characters guessing and moving forward to the best of their abilities, Ter being the most proactive one. A long, winding adventure through seemingly absurd situations follows. And then, at long last, the reveal. But it’s almost as if the plot itself was immaterial, being the strength of the book found in its unfolding. Shadmi provides a much wider spatial structure, allowing Ter to escape from the first apartment and try out a number of other places (the book is divided into two parts and eleven chapters, for easier navigation), come across a larger number of characters, each providing an example for human typologies, as it were, but making sure that all of these new situations are but a version of the same basic tenet. There is always a limit for one’s comfort while others surround us.
Clearly, K. Shadmi changes the title to a clear biblical reference in order to bring a further layer of confusion. “The Abaddon” seems to be the name of the hotel or building where Ter and his “inmates” find themselves, some more oblivious than others. The insides of the building may remind one of Kubrick’s The Shining corridors (I can almost hear in my mind’s ear the soft shuffling of Ter’s feet and his carry on suitcase’s wheels on the patterned carpet), with their narrow views capable of hiding in the next corner the most horrible of monstrous situations, which here become even more dreadful for never taking place. Or better still, because they are always taking place precisely in that wandering about. This is a very special kind of “air-conditioned nightmare,” where no other torture awaits the characters but waiting itself, endless roaming, forgetfulness and an unambiguous destruction of free will.
However, within the diegesis, “The Abaddon” is also the title of an obscure, vintage pornographic-slash-terror film that becomes a very personal obsession of the protagonist, mixing many episodes from Ter’s past life. This allows Shadmi to play an additional, more or less intelligible, common theme: that one’s desire is also one’s undoing, and that fulfilling one’s desire means to dissipate it. Orphan of mother at childbirth, somewhat estranged from his father, a combat veteran with PTSD, and with a complicated relationship with a narcoleptic girlfriend, Ter’s many problems are at one time a burden he brings to The Abaddon but also the anchor to his previous life and whatever may pass as sanity.
However, if we keep on following the “adaptation” facet of The Abaddon, the most important aspect of Shadmi’s book is that he keeps one of the key traits of the play that has been quite often underrepresented: its comedic quality. Despite the horror of finding oneself in a strange place with people who are hard to relate to, or that every time one feels something being born, a sentiment, a union, a way out, is shattered beyond recognition, most of the situations are actually funny. The many failed attempts to escape the first apartment, the continuous sexual tension that never goes anywhere, the prat falls, pieing acts, brutal accidents, innuendos, and the many other tropes Ter comes across with, the fickleness of other people’s dialogues and ideas, the recurrent images and dead ends, make the protagonist’s travails almost typical of a Buster Keaton flick.
If desire is center-stage in The Abaddon, it stands as the anchor of individuality. But this is exactly that which slips away, like the hard-to-retrieve memories of the characters. If we do have scenes that may stand for Ter’s flashbacks, their order is not completely clear, and their veracity even less so. Even names are reduced to a mere syllable – Ter is actually Terrence, so we figure that “Bet,” “Vic,” “Nor,” “Z” are curtailed names as well, not only deleting one’s identity, but one’s capacity to speak intelligibly.
A pinkish, oozing goo is found seemingly everywhere, running through the rooms’ pipes, and is used for the most diverse ends. Nor likes to sculpt melting figures with it, and other characters use it to bake cakes, make frittatas and take baths in… A sort of manna mixed with whatever waters stir in the Lethe, becoming the symbol of a desired nourishment, the blood of the place and also the source of forgetfulness and abandonment.
But we are far from apathetic or defeated characters. Quite the contrary. Emotions boil quickly around these parts. If sometimes the characters seem to wander in a doozy carelessness, the slightest trigger brings them to the peaks of passion, lust, fury. Ter feels sometimes an urge to act heroically, fighting for escape, but he also sinks quickly and deeply into inaction and defeat.
Born online, the book has an oblong format, as each page corresponds to a horizontal screen. The basic structure of the page is a 2 by 3 grid, but there are numerous variations, including splash pages. This gives The Abaddon a certain inescapable, inexorable quality. Drawn in a nimble linework, the objects’ contours retain a sketch-like quality, with multiple, juxtaposed, scratchy lines, that seem to barely enclose the low glow of their colors, very limited tones of a pinkish red and a misty blue, sometimes pushed towards greens, as well as weak browns and darker greens for the flashback scenes. In other words, everything is represented under an eerie light, at one time gloomy and as if with an afterglow. An ethereal nature quite appropriate for the indeterminate existence of this world.
I would like to end with another possible interpretation of The Abaddon. It’s a rather risky one, and it would have to be pursued by someone with better instruments than the ones I can master. It would be to read it as a veiled metaphor for the political situation of Israel. It is true that Ter is depicted as an American marine, but the sort of jingoism and gung-ho attitudes of the “military” episodes or flashbacks could be easily displaced anywhere else, including Israel (a biographical reading could even associate it to the author’s own IDF service). Then we have the small drama of a small, confined space with fluid borders. Its inhabitants, who interpret it each in they own different way, and try to impose that view. An ongoing obsession and tension about keeping one’s memories and feeling them slip away. And even that strange pink goo which seems to act as nourishment and source of several objects of desire would give any Freudian a field day. All of this contributes to the possibility of a complex analogy of the political tensions of the country. Perhaps this will seem too stretched. But then again, here as well, I wonder: no exit?
Final note: I’d like to thank the publisher for sending me a pdf copy of the book.
Read Koren Shadmi’s The Abaddon and related works: