Nick Mullins’s Carnivale is all about identity and belonging. As one might gather from the title, it starts during Carnivale, the time of hidden identities and upended roles. However, totemic masks and class-climbing shenanigans are nowhere to be seen. Instead, Mullins uses the annual festival as a framing device to explore gender and sexuality at a deeper, non-binary level. To get one thing out of the way, Carnivale is wordless. Characters occasionally speak to each other, but their words are conveyed with punctuation, simple symbols, and the occasional extended flashback sequence. This makes it somewhat difficult to review since the characters remain nameless, so I’ll refer to the three most-seen characters by their job titles: the painter, the gravedigger, and the musician.
(I assume that one of them is the titular Kit Kaleidoscope, but there’s no indication within the book itself who that is.)
The basic plot of the book follows a potential romance between the painter and the musician. The painter struggles with body dysmorphia and relationship anxieties, and her boss, the gravedigger, tries to help her through them by sharing his own relationship history. This paraphrasing is intensely my own, though, since there are no words in the book.
This forced interpretation of speech plays to the books themes quite well: even when characters speak directly for themselves, it’s implicitly open to interpretation, which means that the reader—the viewer and the outsider—has more voice in how the speaker is defined than the speakers themselves. The musician, in his first appearance, speaks directly to this:
(My apologies for any funny stuff in the scans here.)
Even though the characters in the song get to define their demeanor with their words (or at least with the things coming out of their mouths, wrapped in speech bubbles), those demeanors are still open to interpretation. Speech is a tool to define the self, but it’s still imperfect. Still, it’s within everyone’s power, according to the musician, to define who they are.
Lack of voice is equally key, of course, whether someone chooses not to talk or has no base from which to define oneself. As the painter falls for the musician, they begin to talk about themselves. The painter, when asked about family, offers an extended explanation involving male and female siblings rent apart by wolves and sewn together by an artist.
We see the painter struggle with sex and gender through her work and her conversation, but readers never get the “objective” portrayal of the her history—no captions or counter-narrator confirms or dismisses the fable-esque telling of her past. Carnivale refuses us that, and it’s an important point: readers might seek a so-called true point of reference, but who are we to the painter? Why do we deserve more than her telling? Should we instead seek to understand her on her own basis? Asking about transgender or hermaphroditism is wrong-minded. Instead, take what is presented and try to understand the painter on her own terms.
The aging gravedigger is the only one who appears to accept the painter as she presents herself. He occupies a similarly marginalized space; he seems to fall in love with an elderly woman at the beginning of the book, but as he presents himself in flashbacks, he’s intimate with a young male writer. The stereotype of the wise old mentor is broken apart to allow for a personal, undefined history of romance. One might ask, is he gay? Is he bi? In a didactic narrative with words, the gravedigger might have been allowed to talk about how he defines himself. In Carnivale, we simply get to see him at one point in his life and “hear” about a tragic point in his past that he still carries with him. Like the painter, he denies definition by outside terms.
Carnivale presents a powerful tension: the characters aren’t given a words with which to define themselves, which could potentially take power away from them. However, with a lack of words, one is encouraged to accept a visual interpretation of themselves that doesn’t succumb to preconceived labels.
The tensions aren’t just present in the plot, though. Mullins takes them to a formal level. His clear, gridded layouts are occasionally confronted and subverted by a battle of curves. Sometimes, the curves are a dangerous and confusing opposition to the grid, such as the example below, where the square panels that fill the pages give way to a wavy pennant of panels that uncurl across the page—a sort of breakdown of a measured understanding of the world that is only saved from greater dissolution by the musician’s note in the bottom right of the fourth page shown. That panel escapes the fluttering chaos over black and reestablishes the more traditional comic narrative.
Other times, the curves speak to the beauty of art and conversation in a way that defies words. Watch Mullins take the painter and the musician from awkward introduction to a discussion that literally dances and soars across the pages:
In the end, these curves seem to represent the personal point of view. They aren’t inherently good or bad, but they can be powerful; they can be utilized and woven together in a way that makes them strong.
They can be created by two people upon first meeting, or they can be woven together by a crowd. On their own, they’re merely signals in the noise—it takes a crowd to make them a bigger force. The basket-like weaving in the pages above illustrates that, and it echoes the subjective point of view that we all form, and the potential danger or joy in creating a belief with a group of people; do they find comfort in similarity, or are they reinforcing dangerous views, becoming a mob or an echo chamber?
Even my only real gripe about the book—that the spine is blank—could just be taken as another meaningful space that I’m forced to interpret on its own terms.
The romances present in Carnivale remain unresolved, which only serves to reinforce the reader’s interpretation of things based only on how the characters present themselves. Resolutions are left off the pages; only wordless points of view are offered. But that’s how life is, isn’t it? How do you understand the people you meet? Is there room in our vocabulary for people who exist outside of the ways we traditionally define each other?