If anything can be said about Abrams ComicArts books, it’s that they are undeniably beautiful. Aside from what lies within their pages, the books themselves are works of art. They are portable museums. The colors, the weight and heft of the paper used, the end paper designs, the cover images chosen, these make the books worth looking at. The stories being told? These make the books worth buying. Their Megascope imprint? These books are worth collecting.
The Eightfold Path, by Steven Barnes, Dr. Charles Johnson, and illustrator Bryan Christopher Moss, is kind of an anomaly in the Megascope offerings. It’s not that it is of any lesser quality than the other books. Not in the least. It is that it feels like it has more of a philosophy, a point of view, a set of values that would be overbearing if not necessary for our times.
It’s obvious from the title that this book will concern itself with the Buddhist process of liberation from samsara (repeated cycles of death/rebirth). But how this book does it is probably something never intended by the architects and contemporary adherents of the practice.
Presented through a series of cautionary and enlightening tales, spanning multiple genres—told by a group of strangers in a secluded cave, seeking enlightenment from an ancient and mysterious spiritual teacher — each tale illustrating one, some, or all of the elements of the noble eightfold path: right view, right resolve, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right samadhi, this book is up there with the best of the Buddhist primers.
To be frank, it was very difficult to get into, at first, because the book felt like a Buddhist primer — as person with degrees in religious studies and philosophy, I felt the anxiety of holding a textbook after so long away from academia. I didn’t want to expose myself to the rote presentation of the material. But the feeling passed because while the book is frank and direct, it never falls into the heavy-handed trap that so many “here’s a fun book about religion/philosophy” fall into. The more I became immersed in the tales, the more uneasy I became. It wasn’t the material that engendered the feeling, but something quite sneaky.
Instead of my asking questions of the material, I felt that the material was asking questions of me. The change in perspective and agency was disorienting, not to mention completely unexpected. At times it felt as if the book was reading me and that I had to become legible enough for the book to understand, and not the other way around. Like I said, wholly disorienting — but an experience that I found not only necessary, but almost transformative. And from speaking with others who’ve read the book, my experience isn’t unique. If I’m understanding my experience/reactions correctly, I think that I felt that way because the book felt like a string of interconnected ‘zines than a coherent body of work. ‘Zines are personal and are possessed of micro-philosophies that invite (non-compulsive) rumination on ideas large, small, personal, and of our commons.
While I fully recommend this book on multiple levels, I do want to offer a critique that I think is important to mention.
Graphic novel writing is as different from novel/short story writing as your job interview persona is from how you would speak with your friends and family. While the authors of this book can write, there were times when the writing did the work where the art should’ve been enough to carry the narrative. Graphic novels are a visual medium and need to be honored as such. But aside from this caveat, The Eightfold Path is a vital reading experience.
Abrams/Megascope has done it again.
You can cop it here.