The Bulletproof Coffin

You know what’s really annoying? You ask people what comics to write about, and they all say “The Bulletproof Coffin, obviously, you idiot. Clearly, it’s the only comic worth writing about right now, and the combination of Kirby influence and metafiction would make it fit right into the series of essays you’re writing to fill out your Hyperpost book. Why would you even consider writing about any other comic YOU ABSOLUTE CRETIN?! BULLETPROOF COFFIN!!

Or words to that effect.

So you think “Of course! I should write about the Bulletproof Coffin! Of course I should! Why would I not have thought that myself?” and you start planning out a big long essay on it in your head. And then David Allison goes and writes almost precisely what you wanted to say, only better, because David can actually write.

I hate it when that happens.

But despite all evidence to the contrary, I still think of this as primarily a comic blog, and Bulletproof Coffin is, after all, one of only five comics I’d happily recommend to anyone right now (the others being MozBats (I don’t really care what the title is, it’s all the same comic), Joe The Barbarian, Glamourpuss and Tales Designed To Thrizzle), and of the five it’s probably got the lowest readership.

The Bulletproof Coffin, issue one of which you can read here, is a collaboration between scripter David Hine (who’s currently relatively well-known among comics fans as, among other things, the current writer of Detective Comics) and plotter/artist Shaky Kane. Shaky Kane is not so well-known among readers of American comics, but British people of my age will remember his work in 2000 AD and the Judge Dredd Megazine in the early 90s as “Shaky 2000”.

Kane’s work is to Jack Kirby as Brendan McCarthy is to Steve Ditko. His work can look at first glance like that of Tom Scioli, another practicioner of late-Kirby-as-genre, but whereas Scioli’s work, for all its irony, still has a fundamental sense of gosh-wow optimism, Kane’s work is filthy and grimy, evoking a sense of paranoia totally missing from his inspiration (or almost totally missing – this weird EC-esque piece from the 70s seems very close to the feel that Bulletproof Coffin captures).

The Bulletproof Coffin itself is a reaction to a reaction to a reaction to the comics of the 50s and 60s. Structurally, it’s superficially similar to comics like 1963 and Supreme in that it interweaves a story set in the modern day with excerpts from pastiche 1950s comics, down to the ads (the most inventive bits of the comic, reminiscent of Kane’s old Believe It Or Not parodies from 2000AD). But whereas Supreme set the two eras firmly apart stylistically, with a variety of Image-style artists drawing the ‘now’, while Rick Veitch expertly pastiched the artists of the past (as seen here in some excerpts that Veitch has posted that were never included in the trade paperbacks), here both ‘modern real life’ and the ‘old style comics’ are drawn in the same style.

This is an important distinction, and it gets to the heart of what Bulletproof Coffin has to say, and why it is closer to something like The Filth than to those other comics. Bulletproof Coffin is about the breakdown of boundaries – between character and reader (hence all the fourth wall breaking), between fiction and reality (the comics our protagonist is reading are by Hine and Kane, both described in fairly self-hating terms), and the boundaries in one’s own mind.

Supreme was Alan Moore’s reaction to what he saw as his own perversion of the superhero genre, and however much he layered it in postmodernism and irony, the contrast between the ‘gritty’ Image style of the modern-day parts and the clean, simple style of the older comics that Veitch evoked meant that an implicit criticism of modern comics was built into the very format of the comic. “Look what we’ve become”, it was saying, “there was a time when everything was simpler and better, when superheroes were good and villains weren’t all that bad and all was right with the world, and I had to spoil it, didn’t I?”

Bulletproof Coffin, on the other hand, says to Moore “No, you were right the first time – there is something vaguely perverted and strange about grown men reading stories that were created for pre-pubescent children, and devoting much of their lives to believing in them. And there always has been.”

The story of Bulletproof Coffin is the story of someone horribly unhappy in his life, finding a stack of old comics and retreating into a fantasy life… or is he… ? As such it’s a fairly standard plot (and not a million miles away from Joe The Barbarian which similarly parallels a ‘real’ and ‘fantasy’ world where events in one impact the other, but the trope can be seen as far back as the film version of The Wizard Of Oz). Where it differs from those fictions, and comes closer to something like a real description of a psychotic breakdown, is in the way that the fantasy world offers no real escape, still having the same horrors as the real world, just exaggerated.

Our protagonist, Steve Newman, works clearing out the houses of dead people. So who does he become in his fantasy superhero world? Superman? Batman? No – the Coffin Fly, another parasite on the dead, whose only apparent power is the ability to hit people with a baseball bat. On the first page he describes a dead character as “No family, no wife, no kids, no friends. A regular sociopath”, but his fantasy is all about getting away from all those things and becoming like that.

This is best summed up by the cover of issue three. On the front we have a standard sexualised comic book cover – a scantily-clad woman with disproportionately large breasts and hips and impossibly-small waist pointing a phallic gun out of the cover, saying “Suck on this, punk!” But on the back we have a realistically-proportioned woman holding up something else you can put in your mouth – a pill to counteract the effects of VD, in a parody Army Medical Board advert. The fourth-wall breaking that happens all the time in this comic (“Ramona, Queen Of The Stone Age” at one point having to travel to the future to contact two men known as ‘the creators’ using clues in the actual comic she’s appearing in – the creators of course being Hine and Kane, who created the comic we’re reading, which isn’t the same comic…) isn’t Silver Age playfulness or Animal Man style philosophising, but closer to the confusion of reality and fantasy which happens in advanced schizophrenia.

When Bulletproof Coffin features fights with tyrannosaurs or zombies, it feels like those things really would feel – horrifying, depressing, and traumatising. And it says a lot about the world today that that still does seem like a more enjoyable alternative than working a nine-to-five job.

None of this is to say, of course, that Bulletproof Coffin isn’t an enjoyable book. It’s often laugh-out-loud funny, and it has so much imagination and incident that it makes pretty much every other comic out there look absolutely pitiful in comparison. But it’s a bleak, hard comic, and the absolute opposite of escapist entertainment. If the Doctor Who live show I saw yesterday was an artistic nothing, aimed at children, but joyful and life-affirming, Bulletproof Coffin is a depressing masterpiece. I’m glad that both exist, but I know which one I’ll still be thinking about in five years’ time.

Last Week’s Comics In Brief

Last week was an incredibly slow week for comics, and I was away for the Fantastic Films Weekend in Bradford over the weekend (about which I may write tomorrow). On top of that, none of the very small number of comics I bought on Thursday allow for very much analysis, so I’m going to pinch the Mindless Ones’ idea and do Tues Reviews To Make You Snooze or something…

Adventure Comics 12 by Paul Levitz, Kevin Sharpe, Marlo Alquiza and Marc Deering.
This is the first issue of this title I’ve read, and I was mildly – but only mildly – impressed. Despite Levitz’ reputation when last working with the Legion Of Superheroes for doing BIG stories, such as The Great Darkness Saga, all universe-spanning epics, this reads like a Silver Age Superboy story.
Or, more precisely, like Kurt Busiek ‘doing’ Silver Age Superboy in Astro City – much like Busiek’s work there’s the slight padding of what feels like an eight-pager into a full story, the cosy Norman Rockwell family scene at the end, and a sense of ‘look, I’m writing a proper Silver Age style story’ rather than just *writing* a proper Silver Age style story.
There are also faults that are common to current DC – in particular, every character having to tell Superman how specially special he is – and ones that are unique to this book (only Brainiac 5 gets even the slightest characterisation, and the line art is slapdash).
Nonetheless, this is competent and pleasant enough. Which given DC’s current standards is a major achievement.

Dodgem Logic 3 by Alan Moore et al
Dear God but this is a heap of shit. I’ve given this three issues because Moore is ALAN MOORE and because there are a number of very talented people involved in this (in this issue, for example, we have Melinda Gebbie, Kevin O’Neill, Steve Moore and Josie Long). But this third issue is exactly like the other two – a couple of half-decent essays (and I do hope Moore publishes a book of the essays he’s done for this or something), a nice free gift (a T-shirt transfer by Melinda Gebbie that would be useful were I the kind of person who went around wearing T-shirts with drawings of naked women on them) and a load of shit.
The shit comes in many varieties – grumpy old man who thinks the world should be like it was when he was a kid shit, pseudo-radical ‘post-civilisation’ shit, sixth-formers who think they’ve discovered something new that the rest of the world knows about shit, and worst of all people who *AREN’T* sixth formers who write like that.
There’s actually an article in here – BY A RECORD SHOP OWNER – that treats Badfinger (except he spells it Bad Finger), Adam And The Ants, The Chocolate Watch Band, Celia & The Mutations and Bobbie Gentry as being somehow obscure musical figures that need bringing to our attention. I mean seriously.
This is just pisspoor, and my huge affection for Alan Moore will only let me indulge him so far.

The Bulletproof Coffin #1 by David Hine and Shaky Kane
THIS is much more like it. This first issue is mostly set-up, but it’s an intriguing set-up – our main character finds a stash of comics that should never have been published.(“Issue 198. The Comic Buyers’ Guide lists the last issue of The Unforgiving Eye as 127. This comic shouldn’t even exist”), created by the classic 1950s comic creation team of Hine and Kane. We get to read one of these – an eight-page EC pastiche, and we get a lot of odd, quite disturbing details (like a TV showing the murder of its previous owner).
It’s very far from being done-in-one, and it’s not the most original thing ever – the mock ads and comic history seem reminiscent of 1963, though I do *LOVE* the ad on the back for a “U-Control Darling Lab Monkey” (which reminds me a lot of Kane’s work in 2000AD in the early 90s, like his Believe It Or Not parodies). But it’s still fascinating.
For those not familiar with Kane’s work, he’s school-of-late-Kirby in much the same way as Tom Scioli, taking his cues far more from Devil Dinosaur than Fantastic Four, but with a wonderfully sleazy line and sense of place. Combined with the story we have something inhabiting a narrative space somewhere between Seaguy and a PG-rated version of The Filth, but formally closer to 1963 (and with a text piece at the end very like those in Watchmen). If ‘Jack Kirby draws Seaguy for EC Comics’ sounds like your kind of thing, then while this doesn’t live up to that description it is almost certainly worth you checking out.

And that was all I picked up last week. But on Thursday we have BATMAN 700, so you can expect a lot of comment from me about that over the weekend…