Written & Illustrated by Nate Neal
Published by Fantagraphics
Nate Neal’s The Sanctuary (which he originally wanted to title with only a drawing of a buffalo, which would’ve made referring to it by title quite difficult) stands as one of the best comics of the year. Ostensibly about an outcast caveman, Neal’s ultimately explaining the origins of comic book storytelling and, in the bigger picture, the importance of creativity and storytelling in general.
Using only an invented caveman language, Neal effectively offers readers a pantomime book. Sure, you can take time and puzzle out the dialogue, but it’s still largely monosyllabic words and short phrases, to-the-point communiqués. The point being, the language may intrigue some readers; for most, the book is eminently readable without glancing at a caption. Neal’s cartooning carries the meaning so clearly that no words are really necessary (though the hand-drawn fonts often assist the reader in deciphering a character’s intent).
With one caveman painting stories on cave walls and a cavewoman trying to create narratives through fire and dance, The Sanctuary looks at the way fear and prejudice limit society’s growth. Attempts to share knowledge run up against a power structure that refuses enlightenment. The world’s full of stories like this one; Galileo Galilei attempted to share what he knew and suffered house arrest. Neal’s cave painter faces similar persecution and ostracization.
A few digressions into dreams help to underline the expanding consciousness that the cavepeople’s society is beginning to understand, as awareness that would be enabled further by the storytelling efforts of the cave painter if only they’d listen to him. However, those digressions do run a little longer than necessary.
Neal’s evocative, exaggerated line work captures a range of emotions in each character, enabling readers to understand, without grasping any of the dialogue, everything that’s occurring. Although some of his character designs could be more distinct (pay attention to which character is which!), his simple grids and clear panels convey all the required information. Keeping the storytelling clear is paramount here, as the dialogue does little to carry the narrative.
The Sanctuary is a powerful story, telling of the timeless conflict between learning and ignorance. Nate Neal provides readers with an insightful look at the tension in a community when the balance is challenged by new thinking. In short, The Sanctuary is a very promising debut, and probably one of the best new comics of the year.