Comic Books to Know About: Sine Qua Non

Comic Books to Know About: Sine Qua Non

I’ve been having a lot of casual conversations with people these days about what makes something marketable. For example if, in the early 80s, I told you that a property built around stories featuring “four fictional teenaged anthropomorphic turtles named after Renaissance Italian artists,” was going to dominate the cartoon and toy market for at least three decades, I think it would have been fair to be skeptical.

I think it’s also fair to be skeptical when I tell you that a Dutch artist made quite a name for himself by writing a graphic novel about nuns that was written entirely in Latin. But here we are. The book is Sine Qua Non by Marcel Ruijters. Released in 2005, it consists of eight loosely connected stories punctuated with few enough Latin captions that Google Translate will help you easily coast through it.

As with several of Ruijters’ other works, Sine Qua Non is inspired by both the medieval and modern eras. His drawings are explicitly inspired by medieval woodcuts and the stories he tells speak to medieval concerns. For example, Ruijters shows nuns self-flagellating -- or whipping themselves -- which was something that people did to cleanse themselves of sin. Ruijters uses the practice to tell a darkly humorous story of religious one-upmanship in which two nuns use increasingly violent means to mortify their flesh.

The story unfolds in a distinctly surreal fashion, reminiscent in both narrative and artwork of the great Jim Woodring. During their competitive penitence, one of the nuns trumps the other by sticking three swords in her face. Accusing her of showing off, her opponent cries out “vanitas!”. She confronts the sword-faced nun and reveals her to be a mummy. The mummy starts the chase the nun, the nun falls into a crevasse, and the mummy saves her. Then things get really weird. The skeleton brings the nun to a sort of religious service focused on a worm, the nun crawls inside the skeleton, the two become one, they turn into a tree, and two other nuns cut down the tree to make crosses. Seriously, you guys have to check this out.

Medieval themes permeate Sine Qua Non. For instance, the supporting cast consists of many creatures that haunted the medieval imagination, such as wildmen -- hairy men who lived in the forest -- and  blemmyes -- men with no heads whose faces were on their chests. The book also explores ideas that have engaged both medieval and modern imaginations: community, ostracism, conflict, questions of authenticity, the relationship between humans and nature, and above all, the frightfulness and possibilities of the unknown.  

This book is a true gem, though it is hard to find in the states. If you’re quick, you can get the last copy at Amazon. If you live in Sweden or Denmark you can buy it here. You may be able to order it through your library or you can beg your friendly neighborhood comic books store to get you a copy. It’s worth the effort to impress your friends with your amazing literary taste.

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