How long can you spend reading a book without words? Quite a bit, it turns out, and when the book is as good as THE NUMBER 73304-23-4153-6-96-8, you can see why. You can lose yourself for long spells in each lush image on every page.
Writer and illustrator Thomas Ott sets the tone early. His detailed, line-filled black-and-white drawings recall film noir, and his “Twilight Zone”-like tale of obsession and greed creeps steadily along to a conclusion you know must come but desperately hope to avoid.
With no words or dialogue, Ott’s unnamed protagonist, an electric chair operator for the local prison, arrives at work to do his job. From the executed prisoner’s last possession, his Bible, falls a strip of paper with the numbers 73304-23-4153-6-96-8 printed on it. Their meaning is lost, but the executioner keeps the paper anyway, and soon he notices their importance. Everything in his life is running on a pattern, the numbers repeating in strange and unexpected ways: a dog tag, a phone number, an address, a sequence of winning numbers on a roulette wheel.
Unable to resist the temptation of using this numerical foreknowledge for his own gain, he falls prey to his own vices. This is where THE NUMBER 73304-23-4153-6-96-8 truly begins to shine, as a smart morality tale with a devious twist. It works as a sharp allegory to the notion that people see what they want to see, form patterns where they wish them to appear, and surrender logic to passion. Those patterns repeat, seemingly on an endless loop, and while it appears to be a wonderful progression at first, the horror of the entire situation slowly dawns on reader and protagonist alike.
Ott has a wonderful way of capturing the mysterious beauty of the unknown through the eyes of his everyman. In the timeless era in which the story is set, nothing feels real, yet everything is as familiar as the back of one’s hand. There’s an overwhelming sense of danger lurking just somewhere in the edges, hidden in the shadows of these drawings, pervading every scene with that terrible prescient feeling things are far different from what they seem and that everything will be changing soon. Even the passage of time is shrouded in mystery, or at least obscured.
Sustaining this ominous feeling throughout the entire story is a difficult task, but Ott manages it with ease. Credit his natural ability to tell a story in pictures with keeping this ambitious project from ever sinking to the level of trite. With or without words, THE NUMBER 73304-23-4153-6-96-8 is a story to be savored --- and one that resonates.
Reviewed by John Hogan on January 13, 2011
The Number 73304-23-4153-6-96-8