Bliss is a complicated comic launching in a time of righteous change, indignation, frustration, and attention in and around the industry. It’s also an excellent example of how the context in which a comic is placed can easily affect how it’s received.
Bliss is the first comic I’ve reviewed in a long time. Bliss is the first comic I’ve read in a long time. I took a long break from comics criticism because I was dissatisfied and wanted to reexamine why I wrote and what I wanted to say. During that time, so much has happened in and outside the industry that cannot be ignored. It will certainly affect how I write and what I choose to write about moving forward, and Bliss #1 is a great comic to help unpack why.
It only takes a few pages to realize what an intensely personal story this is. Bliss is a tale of forgiveness, worship, and father-son relationships created by people who are deeply familiar with the subjects. Lewis has spoken about the actions he or any parent might take to protect his son and his father, who may have helped many people, but abandoned his family. He has experienced the addictive nature of worshiping success and other seductive aspects of life, and I’m sure he’s been on both the giving and receiving ends of forgiveness. Haven’t we all?
The story’s intimacy exudes familiarity through every panel. It’s impossible to ignore how this story must have been informed. As we see this young man before a tribunal having to answer for actions that are not his own but were done on his behalf, how can we not acknowledge where these emotions attained their resonance? You can’t always help but love your family, even after second, third, and fourth chances, and Perry still loves his father after a plethora of crimes forgotten. Motifs like father-son relationships and forgiveness persist across all types of genres and publishers, but few feel as authentically strained as the choked words that exit Perry’s mouth. There is a personal lens through which we can view Bliss and its characters, and it’s not a lens that should be ignored.
At the same time, Bliss is a comic that is coming out as we hear horrific stories of abuse and inappropriate behavior about numerous prolific figures in a myriad of entertainment industries, including comics. These are people that have done terrible things, not always out of malice or superiority, to hundreds of victims, and many of them are now asking for forgiveness. Is it the same? Absolutely not, but I found it difficult to read through Bliss without thinking about who is asking for forgiveness right now and feeling a little uncomfortable. There are so many people who can never forget the things that were done to them or who can’t even remember them because they are no longer with us. Countless victims whose stories may be lost or drowned out. Can you blame someone for feeling a bit sickened at the thought of hearing about and forgiving a man who allowed criminals to sleep at night as they read this? I don’t think so. Is this the fault of the creators? Absolutely not. It was scheduled to be released months ago and few knew about rampant scumbags and perpetuators of sexism, racism, and abuse in the comics industry. But that doesn’t make Bliss feel any less uncomfortable.
Then there’s the work itself, which is intense, profound, and introspective as it begins with Perry and an older Benton finding comfort in individual insignificance. The liberating idea of not having anything to live up to as Benton dives into a lake, seemingly without a care in the world. It’s a hell of an opening scene as Benton starts out as a small speck of brown and white tones against vast purple horizon, but slowly gets bigger before making a large splash. It’s as though the impact of our actions, the splashes we make, are what matter the most.
The comfort of insignificance against the pressures of importance is a delicate balance, but one that is explored head first. Like it or not, Perry and Benton definitely matter now as they stand in from of a tribunal of judges, victims, and onlookers. This is where the motif of worship comes into play, primarily through the issue’s visual grandeur. The courthouse is decorated almost as though it were the lovechild of a baroque cathedral and a colosseum, and the jeering audience makes it feel as much like a religious event as a court of law. Perry and Benton are almost always looking up at someone or something more powerful, acknowledging their lack of control, or downward in shame. One of the only times Benton’s head is determined and straightforward is when he finally accepts the bliss itself. Does worshiping something mean ceding control, or is that just what we tell ourselves for comfort and to free ourselves of accountability? It’s a difficult question, and one I hope Bliss answers.
Accountability and consequences are going to be vital in Bliss, because so much of this series is predicated on the idea that some people don’t get to forget. Some people always have to live with the pain inflicted upon them, and Perry and Benton should have to reckon with the consequences of that. What’s important to the first issue, however, is that we see Perry and Benton as humans before we see them as criminals. Nothing is ever the effect of pure choice, and that is made clear before we completely understand the nature of the crime.
Benton and his family end up in Feral City because Mabel’s father disowned the young couple with little to no money for getting pregnant at a young age. Then Perry got sick as a young child. Desperate circumstances were created by means outside of Benton’s control, as is the case with far too many criminals we see imprisoned today. Yet even as we focus on this family, visual cues remind us that there’s a city full of Bentons and Perrys. From towering vertical skyscrapers, to the alternating horizontal panels showing Benton walking past various hospital rooms and then the intimate scene occurring inside, there are constant visual reminders that Benton isn’t the only person we should be paying attention to.
This is a city where pain and suffering are happening to everyone, so your mind can’t help but revert back to the trial. What makes these characters’ actions more justified? We know that Benton knows what he’s about to do is wrong from the bleak, gray color palette and the secrecy with his wife, so whether or not this story succeeds is very contingent on the accountability that will be attributed to Benton and Perry, because it would be all too easy for the story to fall into a common “the ends justify the means” trope.
Bliss #1’s primary shortcomings have to do with its transitions between scenes and locations and its general treatment of crime. When Benton moves from place to place through montage-like scenes that show a man on a mission for his son, the pacing can get a bit messy. It makes Bliss come across as an issue of powerful scenes connected almost through empty movement and exposition a lot of the time. The narration boxes as Perry speaks to the judge have a much heavier feel than Benton’s quick and precise movements.
Additionally, I think Bliss has to be careful in how it portrays crime and sinful behavior in general. Benton’s trip to the Docktown really took me out of the issue. The judge makes it clear that he considers it to be a place of “drugs, weapons, and perversion,” but when we see it visually, it comes across as very stereotypical seedy behavior. If Bliss is a comic about how we deal with suffering and the things we will do to alleviate it for those we love, how can it give us these caricatures of criminals without also acknowledging that their behavior might also be the result of suffering? Locations can have emotional resonance and a powerful atmosphere without resorting to one dimensional populations, and that particular panel really exemplified some of the dangerous territory Bliss could fall into.
Interestingly enough, Bliss #1’s strongest point comes almost immediately after its weakest. The sense of desperation, anguish, and disgust portrayed in the introduction of the drug Bliss carries intense emotional weight. The architecture of this seedy drug haven is an amazing visual foil to the courthouse. It also plays with worship using baroque-looking architecture and wider perspective. The three suppliers we meet immediately become incredibly strong characters through visuals alone.
Their seedy behavior comes through without resorting to overdone stereotypes. Their mere presence in a jacuzzi surrounded by suspicious barrels in the middle of a large, open room is enough. Their appearances hold the mystery and gravitas of the three fates in Hercules while holding the danger and presence of an alien in the Mos Eisley cantina. Their word balloons have a grimy ooze to them, and the layouts do an excellent job utilizing circular panels to contrast Benton’s smallness with the powerful implications of a drug that makes you forget your trauma. Bliss drips with doom and pain as it leaks out of users’ eyes and gathers in pools. The end makes it clear that the drug connects to a “God of Oblivion” and it will be interesting to see more of the large powers at play here.
There are a lot of contextual factors that complicate the question of if Bliss is a comic you should read right now. It’s an intensely personal comic that deals with a lot of heavy themes in ways that will definitely make you uncomfortable at times. The key question is whether or not Bliss intelligently and appropriately leans into its emotional discomfort, and whether or not you as a reader are accepting of this journey, and the answer is going to vary for everyone. The context of the world we are currently living in and the personal experiences that went into this story affects how each reader is going to experience this comic, and it’s impossible to aggregate something that individualized into a numerical score. I don’t think we’ll really be able to see Bliss’s impact until much further into the series, but this is definitely a comic I’ll be keeping my eye on and discussing in the future.