Some graphic novels are so visually stunning that you can readily imagine print dealers of the future slicing out pages for individual sale, as riveting out of context as extracts from a 19th-century field guide. Daria Tessler’s exquisite CULT OF THE IBIS (Fantagraphics Underground, $29.99) falls into this category, a tour de force in black and white. Nearly every picture balances a sense of wonder and menace — stopping you in your tracks even as the plot races ahead.
It opens with a cityscape that feels at once vast and compressed, ominous and playful. A cloud formation looks like some sinister leakage, while the gears of a rooftop clock are protected by a metal covering shaped, for some reason, like a chicken head. Then Tessler zooms in on one corner of this impossible city: a driver parked at the curb, beneath a sign that says, without explanation, “FATE / FREE WILL.” The facades crammed around this corner range wildly, from thick brick to horripilating dots to a scattering of triangles like tipsy biohazard symbols; some windows appear draped with what looks like wood, and one has a star chart for a curtain. For good measure, a pair of T. J. Eckleburg-grade peepers hangs from the side of one building. The scene is at once static and electrically alive. Something big is about to happen.
Our unnamed protagonist is a getaway driver. While waiting for accomplices to knock over a bank, she satisfies her occult tendencies with an issue of Modern Alchemist Monthly. Tessler shows us the pages of this improbable publication in full, from the “Tear-Out Reference Chart” of the Aristotelian elements (Ignis, Aer, Aqua, Terra), to ads for magical supplies, to befuddling interviews with mystics: “All Things are woven together and all Things are taken apart and all Things are mingled and all Things mixed.” When the holdup goes south, she finds herself with enough cash to send away for the Make Your Own Homunculus Kit ($251,000, “plus $5.95 S+H”). That’s when things really start to get weird.
Alternately greedy for arcane information and cowering with fear, our elfin, snooded stand-in scampers through the city like a cousin of Mark Beyer’s Amy and Jordan, the doomed duo of his “Agony” comics. She lives in a snug flat that seems to float in space, with a tank full of muscular fish, a pointless set of M. C. Escher staircases and a grimacing phone that could be a prop from “Pee-wee’s Playhouse.” When scary thugs chase her to retrieve the bank loot, she begins her true alchemical quest, led at times by an ibis-headed figure. The world of the book grows even more surreal: A vending machine at the seedy, perfectly named Fowler Motel offers weirdly geometric snacks, while at a Lynchian nightclub, the cocktail olives and dancing girls organize themselves into crazed mandalas. A bandage-covered something bumps along, an Edward Gorey drawing en route to the Addams Family mansion.
Tessler is a maximalist, a subscriber to the more-is-more aesthetic, yet her horror vacui approach never gets claustrophobic. Moments in this book will make even the sanest reader wonder if Tessler — whose previous, shorter works illuminated ancient curses and the magical recipes of Albertus Magnus — knows something mere mortals don’t. “The darkness is not absence,” a voice intones over an inky void. “It contains every possibility.” Giddy, frightening and deeply mysterious, “Cult of the Ibis” practically exults in its own power — those future print dealers might think twice about defacing it.
In contrast to Tessler’s supple black-and-white line, TUMULT (SelfMadeHero, $25.99), written by John Harris Dunning and drawn by Michael Kennedy, comes for your eyeballs in huge chunks of fauvist color. The drawings look clumsy, even downright ugly, though perhaps deliberately so; at one point someone’s beard goes green. But Kennedy’s style is crudely efficient, matching a twisty neo-noir plot that hurtles forward with satisfying velocity. In the humid prologue, a music-video director named Adam Whistler badly injures his leg when attempting a cliff dive. He spends the rest of his vacation practically immobile, throwing his long-term relationship away as he’s seducing or seduced by Tammy, a teenage girl in the nearby villa, who packs a tarot deck and wears heart-shaped sunglasses à la Sue Lyon in “Lolita.”
The early scenes especially crackle with Dunning’s droll writing. A convalescing Adam staggers along the beach “like a cross between a Charlie Chaplin sketch and Christ’s progress to Calvary.” Seeking to impress Tammy, he tells her he directed the video for “Wolf Department’s ‘Saturday Night Panics’” — a spot on concoction of early-aughts indie-rock naming tendencies.
An ominous tarot hand foreshadows the deepening chaos in his life. Back in London, Adam descends into bad habits, feeling like “a dartboard for witches,” per Sylvia Plath. At a party a few pages later, a woman chomps on Adam’s lips hard enough to draw blood — the way Plath did the first night she met her future husband, Ted Hughes. The biter’s name is Morgan — or is it? When Adam sees her days later on the street, she professes never to have met him before; what’s more, her name is Leila.
“Tumult” is aptly titled. Dunning nods freely to hipster lit and pop culture — from William S. Burroughs and Anaïs Nin to “Rocky” and “Predator” — which sets the mood and parameters. What begins as a self-conscious genre tribute rapidly turns into a head-spinning adventure with an intensity all its own. Morgan and Leila are the residue of a top-secret government program (shades of “The Manchurian Candidate”), and Adam tries to help the woman who hosts them to break free. Two other narrative strands — one in the form of a yellowing comic book — add to the fun and confusion. (At the very least, they prove that Kennedy can work in a more subdued palette.) When we come out the other side, the tone is one of charged ambiguity: A character has entered the comic-within-the-comic, and all is well — or perhaps we’ve been following a false trail all along. Like the enigmatic image (peaceful? tragic?) that closes out “Cult of the Ibis,” it’s enough to make us happily start anew.