Death, grief, and Theremin #1

This post originally appeared as part of the ‘Opening Contract’ series on The Weekly Crisis, a feature where I examined and discussed the opening panels of a comic. The collected edition of the articles, including interviews with several creators, is available on Gumroad.

Theremin follows Leon Theremin (yes, that Leon Theremin) as he discovers time travel, going from scientist to chrono-superspy under the auspice of Vladimir Lenin and the KGB
 I didn’t plan on focusing on such a dark undercurrent when I set out to write this piece. Instead I thought about time travel and the idea of comic book panels serving as gateways between timelines and time-frames. I’ve explored variations of this theme before, be it the nostalgia inherent in dusting off an old comic, or panels as individual units of meaning. But this time around I couldn’t help but notice death lurking in the gutters.

Perhaps it was because last weekend I watched as my Nan lay on a hospital bed not knowing who I am, who my Dad is, where she is, what day or year it is, or even where my Granddad is — a small mercy with a condition which takes away everything we are, but cruelly leaves us with the systems and means to go on long after even the echoes of us have faded. She’s not ‘present’ all that much but something still remains behind the eyes — they occasionally flicker to life and make a connection with a moment in the distant past, reliving fragments. Then it’s gone, and she’s back in the prison of the present, before a synapse fires and she’s off somewhere else once more.
 Time travel in all but name.
 Death, though, lurks at the fringes of such expeditions. Death will always win out and it never occurred to me until recently how much of Theremin’s opening panel and its three issues are suffused with the idea of death as an inescapable cycle and force. It stands to reason that a character who can travel through time will be much more cognizant of death. He or she will always be seeing the end of things, conscious and aware of the way things play out, the way things change and the way things don’t — death around every corner, marching on through time in an endless loop.
 The first panel in Issue #1 is a wide panel centered on Theremin as he points a futuristic looking gun towards us. We see a wall and several paintings behind him. But there it is, right off the bat — death staring at us from the barrel of a gun. Also, consider the first line of the book (a caption):

“Sometimes I feel like life is just one big fucking funeral.”
“Any last words, Mister Chairman?” (first piece of dialogue from Leon)

A few panels later it’s Leon himself who’s under threat. After dispatching Lenin, he’s confronted by two of Lenin’s bodyguards wearing ‘temporal camo’. The subsequent chase through the corridors shifts into something else entirely as Theremin opens up a portal and heads into ‘The Red’, a place that exists outside of time itself. Here, Pires and Rose depict comic book panels as windows looking in on the time-stream, with Theremin and his pursuers moving past and around them as they fall through the red void. Death chasing a man who can move through time and space at will. Inescapable and relentless.

The panels we see in the central axis of the page depict events that have already happened, events that we, the reader, are seeing all at once. Comics as four dimensions, comics as time travel. Because this is what comics are at their basic level, with panels acting as individual units of time and meaning, mere moments, but moments that can be years, centuries or eons apart but still exist next to each other.
 The opening panel, for instance, and the scene that follows it, all exist in the future — an end point of sorts. Everything we see after occurs before this scene (at least, chronologically speaking). 
 In Issue #2, Lenin stands before his ‘grid’ a high tech device used to look into the time-stream:

“Corrections — correlations — divergences” “Everything is one inside Vladimir Lenin’s grid.”

It’s no mistake that Lenin’s device is named the grid, or that it looks somewhat like a comic book page. And what is it that’s affecting Lenin on this page?

“I looked and looked and looked, and finally, I found something. I found the end.”

Again, this is the curse of those who can see and travel through time. They see the end approaching, death waiting at the edges. For all his plans, all his glorious machinations and ideas of empire the end will come for Lenin just as it comes for the rest of us.

Switching back to Issue #1 and the chase sequence, Theremin re-enters the time-stream, plunging feet first into a ‘panel’ at the bottom of the page. The next page then begins with a slightly different iteration of the opening panel. Theremin stands in front of the chairman’s desk, the paintings behind him as he points his gun towards us/Lenin (Lenin as audience surrogate). The angle has changed, suggesting something is different this time. Sure enough, the scene ends with Lenin’s death as before, but there is no chase this time. Mission successful. Theremin has cheated time and death. For now.
 At Issue #2’s climax we see another iteration of the opening panel, this time seen through Lenin’s ‘grid’ by the chairman himself. Theremin fires the gun, asking Lenin if he has any last requests. Lenin sees his own death as we do, observers of a panel on a grid, a moment isolated in time. If you’re counting, this is technically the third time Lenin has seen Theremin pull the trigger, the third iteration of this moment — inescapable death. It’s also the third time that we, the reader, have seen it too (Lenin as audience surrogate once more). But it’s the moment of Leon confronting Lenin, pointing that gun and asking if he has any last words that sets off what comes next.

“Leon Theremin has to die”

Death begets death and the whole cycle begins (again).

It becomes clear then that the opening panel in Issue #1 acts as a nexus, a fulcrum around which everything else spins around and out of — it is the head of the snake and also its tail. Death and rebirth, over and over until it all turns black.
 The opening panel is a promise of the death to come and a reminder of the death waiting for us all. Even without the tech as a means to travel through time we all do it in our day to day lives. We remember the past, we distort it, discard the elements that don’t work and rewrite it daily. The closer we get to the end the more we look back until all that’s left is the past.
 Traveling through time, existing outside of it — death at the end, death at the beginning, anchored as we are by vessels of flesh.

Originally published at on April 17, 2016.

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