You begin to read Frederik Peter’s The Smell of Warm Dust in the knowledge that it is Volume 1 – the first of five apparently – and the funny thing about graphic novels that come in instalments is that you don’t view them in the same way as comics that tell an episodic story. This is because comics usually appear at one monthly or at most two monthly intervals (Neil Gaiman’s Sandman Overture, we’re looking at you). With books, we are in a different kettle of fish entirely. And reading a book from within a kettle of fish isn’t as unsettling as you might think. The key reference point currently is probably Charles Burns and his current project – X’ed Out and The Hive forming two (strange) parts of a yet to be revealed whole (hole?). You read, picking up strands and skeins, nodding at connections, but otherwise relaxed. Some of this stuff will make sense in the future. Some of this stuff may not make sense in this book. Some of these initial first impressions will be wrong. Provided you can put up with a certain amount of open-endedness, there is much in the inaugural Aama to whet your appetite.
Our protagonist is Verloc Nim, a brooding, dark haired young man who has woken on a strange planet – Ona (Ji) – with little memory and only an articulate robot chimp for company. The chimp, Churchill, gives Verloc a book containing writing that Verloc recognises as his own. From this point, we get three narratives – forgetful Verloc and Churchill travelling across alien terrain, a slightly beaten up Verloc writing the book from within the confines of an angular Fortress of Solitude type construction and the Verloc who we are reading about, waking on Earth in the gutter, helped up by his brother Conrad and given the opportunity to take part in a space journey. Verloc, we learn, has been on something of a downward spiral, having broken up with his wife and lost access to his daughter. Conrad meanwhile is working for the Muy-Tang Corporation (‘one of the two corporations behind the Great Crisis’) and is just about to set off for ‘the far reaches of space’ to find out what happened to a small scientific expedition that disappeared some five years previously. As with Charles Burns, Peters deftly switches between moods and locations, eschewing Burns’ sometimes bewildering ‘what the fuck is happening’-ness in favour of just enough mystery and intrigue to keep you turning the pages. Peters is good at judiciously introducing just enough information (Verloc’s love of books and fear of – or perhaps resistance to is a better way of putting it – technology, for instance) to flesh out the characters whilst at the same time propelling the narrative. The Smell of Warm Dust also has a nice undertone of menace (perhaps best seen in the walk through the rain in which Verloc, Conrad and Churchill are being observed by a robot) and an interesting set of influences (think Joseph Conrad by way of Ray Bradbury). He also flirts with Bolano-esque dream sequences.
Given the size of the story he is telling, tings crack along at a terrific pace and you sometimes – sometimes – wish for his art to be given a little more room (particularly when we glimpse Peters in John Ford mode gazing out across an alien landscape), but this is a minor niggle. The only real question The Smell of Warm Dust needs to satisfactorily answer at this point is: is there enough here to (a) have me coming back for me and (b) have me re-reading this before I jump in on volume 2? The answer to both of those questions is a resounding yes.
Any Cop?: If you’re not averse to a bit of sci-fi, skilfully told in a graphic form and don’t mind engaging in something that is going to take years to pay out, then The Smell of Warm Dust is one you might want to check out.