Zak Sally’s Recidivist IV is one of the strangest, most engaging, and most frustrating comic books I have ever read. I bought a copy of Recidivist IV at the Drawn & Quarterly book store in Montreal back in January 2015. I had heard about it and wanted to write about the form, the content, and the ways it explores the concepts of “seeing” art, but I never managed to get it quite right and left all of my previous attempts at explaining it unfinished. I always knew I was going to revisit it, but the day never came. Yet, here I am, 5 years later, with this book constantly in the back of my mind, still being read, still moving regularly from my bookshelf to my nightstand and back again. Sometimes I read it with its accompanying music, sometimes not. I’ve read it at any time of the day or night, yet it still remains equally baffling, obtuse, distracting, and nightmarish.
Recidivist IV came out in a specific context. Zak Sally wrote a long explanation of what the comic was and what it wasn’t. In this blog post (still available on his website), Sally describes his creative process and the reasons behind it. The book is a tactile object that is meant to be engaged with, but its creator provides a preemptive warning to those that approach it to come at it with an open mind. As far as his intention, he said back in 2014 that he “really felt strongly about making something pointless, ridiculous, maddening, and beautiful. It’s about failure and obsolescence and fear and hope and why anyone in this day and age would spend time and energy making and disseminating obscure printed sheets of paper with stuff on it. and why that still matters, even if all signs point to the contrary.” As a critic, I disagreed with him at the time and still do in many ways. Rather, in my opinion, Recidivist IV was never pointless, never simply meandering, never asking questions which, like most works of art, it simply couldn’t quite answer. Recidivist IV is a book about distress, about the circumstances that surround that distress. It is a book where an artist wonders whether his lifelong pursuit of his passion was ultimately worth it. It’s anything but pointless, it’s existential.
Another interesting element about Recidivist IV is that in addition to being a comic, it also contained a music cd. It’s a 14-minute droning, ambient rock song. This music is an experience in its own right, but when it is coupled with the book, it adds an extra layer of dissonance to the whole reading experience. Sally’s book is an experiment in dissonance in more ways than one and it requires an effort on the reader’s end, just as it did on the artist’s end.
Recidivist vol. IV is a nightmare to read. It is deliberately difficult, and some of its passages can only be seen at certain angles with light hitting it just so. There is a surreal sense of dissonance in reading a book that is actively fighting against your engagement. The first time I read it, I forgot every sentence immediately as I worked frantically to catch the next one, trying to piece together a story that includes a certain speed of thought and an assured line, leaving me feeling inadequate and desperate. What did that person say? What are they trying to do? What does it mean? Reading Recidivist is a cognitive experience unlike anything I’ve ever had. It’s like stepping into a Graviton at a fair. Your mind and body are in it, spinning at high speed, fully engaged in the moment. You struggle to string the concepts of the book back into a coherent whole, parsing through the noise, the light, and the words to make sense of the story.
The book was printed on a risograph printer in a very peculiar way. Most work I’ve seen printed with a riso aims for clarity. Since the artist needs to print each color separately, consideration has to be given to how colors will look on each page. For example, if you have a person with black shoes, green pants, a blue shirt, and a red mask, you would avoid printing the colours on top of each other so as to ensure that each colours fit where they are supposed to fit. There are often imperfections in the final product due to the printing process and the soy-based ink, but it’s always little things, like smudging or uneven ink coverage, nothing like what appears on the pages of Recidivist IV. If we go back to our character in black shoes above, it’s possible that the black of the shoes be printed slightly higher on a page, making it look like the shoes extend into the pants, but it’s usually a minor issue. In Recidivist IV, colors blend on top of one another. As well, the text is printed using a metallic ink on top of the book’s bright pages, making it almost unreadable.
Once I finished my initial reading and I put aside the issues of clarity, though, it allowed the poetry of Sally’s words to shine. In these pages there is a strange impression that while there are four different stories, the text comes from a single narrator. There is a different setting in each story, and they don’t seem to have anything in common. In most of the stories in Recidivist Vol. IV this works to their advantage. While I feel the rambling is at times too much, when taken in small doses, this raw style is interesting. Yet it’s very hard to separate the context in which this book was written seeing as it’s a response to a distressing moment from Zak Sally. But even when you can forget about the context, the text is unpolished and follows an odd train of thought. The nature of the text gives a proximity to what Sally is saying and it really allows the reader to feel the more visceral aspect of the writing.
In total, there is a great sense of distress in this book. From the first sentence of the comic (“Somebody waved the white flag or threw in the towel on my behalf without consulting me in the least.”) all the way to the end, this distress, or maybe it’s depression, imbues the book with a sense of despair and sadness. As you progress through the stories, you realize that this emanates from an opposition between the reality and the perception of one’s worth. There’s a constant clash between the narrator addressing “you”, the reader, and a collective “they” that’s a sort of generalization of what the narrator thinks others must think. It comes back constantly in the book, this idea that “You” try to accomplish something, collecting stardust, taking revenge, going home, or whatever it may be, but “they” are always around you. It’s disheartening to read, especially after reading Sally’s explanation of what he wanted Recidivist IV to be. It’s in many ways a cry of distress from the writer trying to achieve something with his life and career and not being able to do so, mostly because of exterior forces blocking him, but also because the goal was never achievable in the first place. It’s incredibly sad to read. While Recidivist IV is not a perfect book, it’s bold, and sensing the writer being in such a state feels bleak.
The first story in Recidivist Vol. IV is Scratch, Scrape. It is a story of a man obsessed with finding and storing every little piece of stardust that has fallen into his house. The narration is a grating rant about compulsive behaviour and being unable to stop oneself from seeking justification for one’s actions. It’s the clearest story contained in this comic. Sally uses three colours for it: a blue, a red, and a black mix. It’s lettered in black. His character, with exaggerated features, a large nose and exhausted red eyes, is the perfect pairing for this story of obsession.
The second story, called Revenge, best illustrates the distress I mentioned earlier. It is drawn in blue and metallic silver ink, which makes the reading quite difficult except under certain angles. It’s essentially one long narrated rant about taking revenge in the abstract against something or someone that has wronged the narrator. It’s a confusing, rambling, incongruous mess to read. The slight is never mentioned and, as it remains vague or more generalized, it’s hard to get involved in this story. It’s a sad piece, as it’s essentially a narrator lashing out against nothing in particular. The illustrations, too, contribute to this feeling of incongruity. We see a man sitting at a table, blank sheets of paper or handkerchiefs floating in the air. We see scissors, a hammer, the ocean, a bird. It all contributes to feeling like the narrator, or more likely Sally himself, is caught in a spiral of despair.
Unhome, the third story in Recidivist Vol. IV, is perhaps the most difficult to read in more ways than one. It’s done in yellow and purple ink with metallic silver highlights on one page. The other page features only the text, printed in black and metallic silver, oftentimes on top of each other, on top of multiple spirals. It’s a nightmare to read. The story portrays a man seeking something, finding it, and, ultimately, being ruined by it. It’s also the point where the text becomes grating. There is so much overgeneralization, it feels even more like the previous story in that it’s a confusing, rambling, incongruous mess to read. This one does get closer to something tangible, the idea that your dreams and aspiration will ultimately be your downfall, but it feels circuitous.
The fourth wordless story in the book is possibly the one I enjoyed the most. It is a poignant story of a family witnessing the aftermath of something horrible and being changed by the experience. Perhaps it is simply because of the abrupt change of pace from the rest of the book, or because of the eerie feeling of emptiness inside me, but this story feels really strong. It being a wordless story feels like it truly allowed Sally’s art to breathe.
I don’t know that any single one of the short stories are particularly strong, neither are they memorable, but the experience of Recidivist IV is in itself unforgettable. It’s the physical aspect of the book, it’s music, it’s ideas, it’s themes that resonated with me.
If you can read Recidivist IV in a sunlit room, you’ll have a good reading experience. The colors of the ink feel much livelier that way. That’s where the use of the silvery metallic ink as part of the riso printing seems incredibly well thought-out. It adds to the feeling of otherworldliness of the book. It both complicates the reading when taken in the wrong light (therefore reinforcing the theme of hardship and distress contained in the book), and it also adds a layer of detachment, of cold metal, between the page and the reader. Even when the reader actually does see the text in the proper light, it hardly matters. The words are cold and uninviting. It is not something I’ve ever experienced before and I have yet to see duplicated elsewhere.
Ultimately, I don’t know if I can say Recidivist IV is any good. I don’t like it, I don’t know that I ever did, but the fact remains that this book has been on my mind constantly for over five years. Ultimately, it’s about following something and being disappointed to the point of ruin, and, perhaps, that echoes how I’ve read this book. I’ve looked at it from every angle, listened to its music on every device I own, absorbed all of its reactionary poetry directly into my brain, and analyzed all of its potential meaning. It’s grotesque, frustrating, and disheartening. It’s also wonderful in countless ways. I’ve never experienced anything like it before. I probably never will again. Even the obscure experimental riso-printed work of Colour Code Comics can’t reach the level of complexity Recidivist IV has. I’ve engaged with it more than any other piece of art and, perhaps, that’s enough.