This week I learned to never, ever doubt Dover Comics again. The Puma Blues, which Dover rescued from comics publishing oblivion, was on my best of 2015 list and The Magician’s Wife, by the always amazing Francois Bouq and novelist Jerome Charyn was also great. So why did I not pick up the similarly hyped Through The Habitrails by Jeff Nicholson? Not sure, really.
Well, I found an old, yellowing 1996 collected edition in that golden warren of second-hand comics, Evil Empire comics (hi, Phil!), took it home and started it straight away. This incredibly bizarre, semi-autobiographical novella about a man’s struggles working day in, day out as a commercial illustrator for “The Corporation” hit really close to home, far too closely actually. The first several chapters were so quietly disturbing and eerily familiar, I put the book down and took my dog for a walk. None of the many characters has a name outside of the nicknames bestowed upon them by our similarly nameless protagonist. “The Cat Lover,” “The Doomed One,” “The Temporary Girl” and many others populate the pages of this nightmare that’s a blend of Kafka, Gilliam and Palahniuk. The office our poor narrator works in is filled with empathic gerbils that run through a maze of tubes across the office. The workers themselves are “tapped” like maple trees or beer kegs - The Corporation literally draining their life fluid. Our narrator’s struggles to escape frequently prove futile, for perhaps there is nothing to really escape to? Urgh, it’s grim.
If you’ve ever had, or currently have, a job that feels utterly pointless, I suggest you read this black and white nightmare. Or not, actually, like I say I had to take a break, it felt like bits of me on the page in far too many places. I daresay you’ll feel the same. These poor, literally faceless characters each harbour addictions that grow to, in some cases, destructive levels, addictions that allow them to get through the day. Our protagonist’s alcoholism becomes so dire that he screws a jar to his head, fills it with beer, and tinkers with the levels and mixtures to produce the most useful blend of detached haziness.
The characters literal facelessness symbolises their metaphorical facelessness to the corporation, their disposability, their slow, self-destruction at the hands of their life-stealing masters and also allows the reader to project their own personal work acquaintance of similar personality onto the page. Originally published in Stephen Bissette’s greatly-missed Taboo horror anthology, Nicholson’s stories may well end up being the most unsettling comics you’ll read – not because of the violence (of which there is little), not because of the shock value that constitutes so much of comics horror (there is literally none of that) but because in its surreal, dreamy, symbolic, harrowing pages, it’s totally ruthless in its examination of just how horrible, pointless and potentially destructive the dream of “employment” can be. It’s a classic - I say that without reservation. You should really ask the team at All Star to order you a crisp, new Dover edition. It comes with a Matt Fraction introduction, I believe. Highest, **hiiiiiiiggghhhheeessstttt** possible recommendation. I could go on and on forever about it.
COMIC OF THE WEEK : MASTER KEATON VOLUME 5
By Naoki Urasawa with Hokusei Katsushika & Takashi Nagasaki
Published By Viz
If you didn’t read my column way back then, here’s a quick summary of Master Keaton: Taichi Keaton is a melancholic half-Japanese, half-English man at home seemingly nowhere in the world. He harbours dreams of being an archaeologist, but for now settles for being a “failed college lecturer” and globetrotting insurance investigator. Oh, he’s also formerly SAS and is a survival expert. I’ve said this before, but he’s the kind of jack-of-all-trades character that populates so much of the modern high-concept thriller novel. He should be in Lee Child books or Harlan Coben books but instead, he quietly makes his way around the world in a manga, solving murders, getting trapped in Iraq at the outbreak of the Gulf War, stalked through the woods by killers, or apprehending fugitives and barely throwing so much as a fist as he does so. The stories, largely self-contained but occasionally broken into two parts (in this volume there’s a four parter – an epic by Keaton standards) mean that any volume can be picked up and enjoyed with virtually no knowledge of the character or his background required to dive in.
The most amazing part about the done-in-one (or two) formula the creators use, however, is how much time they allow Keaton to either be at peace or at play (last time, I mentioned the classic episode where he chases an ice-cream van around London for the simple fact that he really wants some ice cream). It’s a multigenerational tale also, with Keaton’s ageing, womanising father and his young daughter also frequently brought in to dollop out nuggets of Keaton’s backstory in surprisingly quiet ways. It’s these stories, which break up the action/espionage/mystery/whichever-genre-Keaton’s-instered-into-today chapters that, for me, are the true highlight. I’ll finish one of them and almost sigh with disappointment at the revelation of a corpse on the next page…back to the action again, poor Keaton…
In volume five, the creators give us another quiet gem with “The Agate Time,” ostensibly the story of young Keaton riding a bus around the coast of Cornwall. Through flashback to 1967, we discover that little Taichi Keaton, following the acrimonious divorce of his parents, spent some time with his grandmother in her Cornwall home. Keaton, a quiet but naturally inquisitive child, appreciative of the world and everything in it, finds some solace in taking bus rides around coastal roads, to watch the waves of the ocean roll in and out. The route is a quiet one and Keaton is befriended by a similarly melancholic bus driver named Chris. Chris shares a love of the shifting colours of the ocean and he and Taichi quite quickly seem bonded, despite the cultural and generational differences. At no point to we see Keaton’s grandmother, or anyone close to him at all, in fact. He is as alone in this world as a child as he is during his future adventures as an adult. It’s a clever glimpse into his self-reliance. However, we soon learn that there’s another reason Taichi takes these bus routes – the local boys are bullies who pick on him. We also learn of a steep class divide in the area, with resentment toward the rich holidaymakers (of which Taichi Keaton is essentially one) and the struggling local residents. The ringleader of the boys who bully Taichi Keaton, Dean, reveals his resentments – his own father could have been a promising scientist, but is instead an alcoholic wreck, stuck here forever in this beautiful, but divided, stretch of coastal land.
Bus driver Chris is a serious working class man, who takes his job and his responsibilities very seriously, even kicking off some drunken, rowdy passengers at one point. Keaton’s aboard for this squabble, and is also an unfortunate witness later when he visits the local pub where the man kicked off the bus has beaten a drunken Chris to a teary pulp. It’s a brutal moment – Taichi having to witness the humbling of his only friend and in many ways, his early mentor. It’s also clear that bully Dean is Chris’s son. The friendship between Taichi and Chris is strained after Chris’ violent humiliation, the class divide opens up between them, the cracked ego comes out, and Chris’s failures spill forth.
There’s a lot going on here clearly. All of it is pretty melodramatic and heavy-handed (there’s no subtext at all, quite typical of manga), but it’s still a pretty powerful piece of comics and – most importantly – a mind-blowing revelation of what you can actually do with characters who, on the surface, are generic tough guy heroes. This little story, about a boy who likes to go for bus rides and in the process learns so much about life is, thematically, as Literary as things can possibly get – hilarious when you consider that this book is basically manga MacGyver.
Sentimental? Yes. Sappy? Yeah, sure. But there is real comics power here in this, the least action-driven of stories imaginable. This is what makes manga so great – the expansiveness of it, the opportunities allowed to spent fifty pages in childhood flashback that means absolutely nothing to an ongoing narrative, but yet so much to the character who powers it.
Urasawa’s gifts with expression are on full display – I don’t think anyone draws eyes welling with tears like him. He should be studied by any aspiring artist struggling to make a look of childhood surprise as striking as the sneer on a bad guy’s mouth, or how to compose scenes of near stillness with cinematic grace. If you love comics as an artform, I highly encourage you to read Master Keaton; its continual surprises come in the most unexpected ways. Again, this is just ONE chapter of the thirteen included in volume 5 – a volume that, like those before, veers all over the place tonally and in genre, with the constant anchor being the pleasant, unassuming manner of its lead, about whom there is still so much more to learn.
For more Urasawa, please check out this week’s video, an episode of his documentary series, Manben, with the equally amazing Inio Asano as guest. Watching both of them work is a pretty special thing indeed.
WEBCOMIC OF THE WEEK : NO COMMENT
By Ivan Brun
To think that I wasn’t going to run a webcomic this week as I’m Captain Rambles….then, I went to The Comics Reporter and saw the work of Ivan Brun. Jesus Christ. No Comment is 52 pages of the angriest, most politically-charged (see Caza’s work in the below Heavy Metal for more) comics you’ll find in quite some time. Gorgeously drawn in a disarmingly cartoonish style that makes the knife twists even more painful, the numerous short stories that comprise No Comment are dialogue free, but perhaps even more powerful in intent and execution as a result. What a week this column is turning into for comics that are angry, personal, political and thought provoking. Please, please click over and give it your time. You won’t regret it. (Note: look for “No Comment” under the bande desinees section)
COUNTDOWN TO MOZ METAL: HEAVY METAL DECEMBER 1979
Wait, what? “Shelter” skips this issue? Aw, man. Sure this is tangentially themed for Christmas, but when you’ve got strips like Corben’s “Rowlf” about a fantastical dog-man hunting down tank-driving Nazi demons, surely there’s room for Montellier’s tale of nuclear war survivors trapped inside a shopping mall which really would’ve been the perfect middle finger to Christmas consumerists everywhere (unless, of course you are supporting your Eisner Award-winning local comics retailer – put down that box cutter, Mitch).
But speaking of “Rowlf,” let’s just skip ahead to his adventures as in this chapter, as he not only battles the aforementioned tank-driving demons, but commandeers an actual tank, killing more demons in the process than Batfleck killed criminals in his machine guns-everywhere Batmobile. Rowlf rolls off into the dawn, with a squad of odd helpers, suitably armed now to battle more demons as he tracks down his beautiful kidnapped mistress. Corben’s clearly having the time of his life with “Rowlf.” it’s so absurd it feels as if it was created as a dare during a drinking session with Bruce Jones. But just try and resist a comic that actually contains the following caption: “The startled dog jumped into the driver’s seat and switched the power on.” Yeah.
Flip back to the start of the issue and you’ll find Caza’s brilliant “Suburban Scenes: Welcome to Cityville 2.” Caza, that old hippy, apparently cares not for your yuletide nonsense, putting forth one of the most bitingly grim pieces of dystopian comics HM has so far published. A man – the same, beared, bespectacled hippy Caza always uses in these longer form non-cosmic pieces – moves into a cheap apartment. It’s slowly revealed, however, that the building is in fact a prison, designed to house those with low, or no, income, and all manner of social undesirables from “jazz musicians” to “homosexuals” to “ex-cons,” “pacifists” and more, in order to speed up the gentrification of the city. Spiralling into a kind of Kafka-esque Mega City One story, “…Cityville 2” is a scorching piece of urban satire, broken up by our poor protagonist realising the nightmare he’s trapped in making a break for it and being met on the streets by a gang of thugs masquerading as “concerned citizens” who escort him back, and an interview with the minister for social security on television, who explains this urban rat trap. Actually made in 1976, the year after probably my favourite book, High-Rise by J.G. Ballard was published, “…Cityville 2” is actually a fitting substitute for my beloved “Shelter,” tapping into that same paranoid but completely relatable type of urban left-wing concern and obviously widespread fear of urban development (and possibly late century modernity?).
Less deep space, more skyscrapers – let’s hope this is a trend that sticks in these pages for the next little while, a swing toward smart, political satire over naked women with swords on alien worlds. Caza’s brilliant work here proves there is room for both, but there is far more relevance in the former.
Christian Harold’s “On The Side of the Road” presents a similar sort of resentment toward the trappings of modernity, but totally blows it in execution. A beautiful woman pulls her sports car off a clogged highway into the woods, where she gets out, strips down, rolls around in the flowers and masturbates. She then suits back up and hits the road once more. The end. Yep. Heavy Metal, folks! This is kind of like Harold got hold of Guy Colwell’s Inner City Romance, noted the nudity, the hippies, the pushback against the grimly urban, the concrete and went, “Yeah, I can do this!” and completely neglected to pull off anything even close to Colwell’s sublime work.
Hilariously, Joyce Farmer, a regular reader who wrote in to compliment everyone behind the August issue and point out (as I did) how great Lee Marrs’ “Free Ways” was, says, “ It’s nice to see things that are not mostly tits and ass, which for women is tiresome, since we have our own to look at any time.” I say: Good job, Joyce, please write in and let us all know what you thought of “On The Side of the Road.”
But it’s okay, Trina Robbins is back to balance the scales somewhat (it is still amazing just how comparatively female creator heavy HM was becoming at this time) with “Pau Pele Pau Mano,” the retelling of the legend behind the eruption of the Hawaiian volcano Mauna Loa in 1880. In short: Fire Goddess Pele is spurned in favour of the post-colonial Christian God. Angered by some local Bible-thumpers determined to enforce “the one true book,” Pele is angered. Robbins’ vibrant colours and beautifully textured art are a highlight, with a splash of an angry Pele exploding forth from her lava bath, exclaiming “WHO INVITED YOU?” should be on a T-shirt.
Moebius provides “A Tale of Christmas,” which in true Moebius style has nothing to do with Christmas and instead is concerned with some hunters stalking some winged humanoid things called Lippon, who turn the tables, kill the hunters and declare war on humanity. Merry Christmas. Eh, it’s three dense black and white Moebius pages. Who can complain about that?
Alain Voss, Luc Cornillon and Arthur Suydam round this issue out with a trio of beautifully drawn but average “Christmas” themed tales that wrap up the year 1979 in unspectacular style covering a Christmas space orgy gone awry, the death of some native Americans in a spoof of old Western comics and Dickens meets monster rape in Ye Olde England. Yup. Still, there’s a lot of content in this issue and much of it great. Bring on 1980.
COMICS VIDEO OF THE WEEK : URASAWA NAOKI NO MANBEN: ASANO INIO
Naoki Urasawa’s Manbeninterview series is one of those things that feels like a peek behind a curtain you’re not sure you want to take – the alchemy of comics is poured out in front of you. But seeing Urasawa at work in his own studio is a too tantalising prospect on its own, not to mention also watching his guest in this episode...
Here, Urasawa chats with Inio Asano, the staggeringly talented young artist behind Goodnight Punpun, The Girl On The Shore, Nijigahara Holograph and the currently ongoing (in Japan) Dead Dead Demon's Dededededestruction. The result is incredible. Seriously, as far as process stuff goes, this borders on porn for weirdos like me who can barely draw a face but audibly gasp at the revelation of an illustrative master’s preferred nib thickness.
Urasawa is also nearly overcome by the technique and method that Asano shows over the several days he was filmed at his desk, unafraid to heap awestruck praise on the artist twenty years his junior and acting totally flummoxed at the close up on Asano’s unorthodox grip on his inking tools. As much as I like Asano’s product (and I like it a lot), I’ve not been fond of his reliance on the photos he frequently uses to compose backgrounds. Even so, it’s pretty cool to see him put it all together on the page, particularly as he continues to make everything more “analog,” “roughed up,” to Urasawa’s nodding approval and the revelation that he’s as painstaking about his digital process as he is with good old pen and ink surprisingly shows that there are no corners being cut. Seriously, give this a watch, it’s wonderful stuff.
“You’ve really given us a no holds barred long at things,” Urasawa says and I concur. It’s the most personal documentary I’ve included since that visit to Frank Quietly’s studio in, I think, my second ever column here.
See you next week. Love your comics.