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The Bulletproof Coffin

Posted in comics by Andrew Hickey on October 24, 2010

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.

Joe The Barbarian

Posted in comics by Andrew Hickey on March 14, 2010

If there is one person who I wish had never been born, it’s Joseph Campbell.

The concept of ‘the Hero’s Journey’ has done more to ruin fiction and popular culture than any other concept I can think of.

I’m not talking here about its role in ‘the Men’s movement’, though it’s hardly surprising that a narrative form that’s all about how some people are born special and are just specialer than anyone else and that’s all there is might be tied to ultra-reactionary politics (via people like Minnesota ‘poet laureate’ Robert Bly – himself far from a reactionary, but his “Iron John” writings have inspired a lot of them, and it’s no coincidence that he was appointed to his position by Tim Pawlenty, one of the most vicious and stupid politicians in what is a fairly politically vicious and stupid country). Nor am I annoyed by Campbell’s Jungian justification for his ideas – a good idea can come even from such unpromising soil.

What annoys me is that something that was intended as a *description* is instead increasingly being taken as a *prescription*.

Campbell is in a weird position, culturally. Among the ‘geek demographic’ he is hugely known but little-read, quoted to give a veneer of academic respectability to their prejudices, while among academics themselves he is largely dismissed. To the general public, he’s barely known at all.

As I (perhaps optimistically) tend to assume that the readership of this blog is closer to ‘the general public’ than ‘the geek demographic’, I’ll summarise Campbell’s work briefly. In essence, Campbell studied a lot of myths, and saw that many of them followed the pattern “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”

So far so normal – that does, indeed, sound like almost every story ever, because it’s completely lacking in content. But Campbell went on to point out a lot of other elements that are seen in many (but by no means all) stories, before putting these all together into a ‘monomyth’ – a description that supposedly all myths and legends fit, though in fact none fits exactly.

If you want to know what that monomyth was, just watch Star Wars. George Lucas very consciously followed Campbell’s books, hit every single point that Campbell described, and had a huge hit. And this is where the problem started.

For some reason, the success of Star Wars was not put down to the idea that kids like to see robots and spaceships and light-saber fights and that there hadn’t been any exciting, fun, pulpy SF in the cinema for more than a decade. Nor was it ascribed to Lucas’ careful world-building. And nor was there a sudden boom in people stealing wholesale the plots to Kurosawa films, even though that had worked well for The Magnificent Seven and A Fistful Of Dollars as well. Instead, it became received wisdom, for God knows what reason, that it was following Campbell’s ‘rules’ that made Star Wars a hit.

And so *EVERYTHING* from Hollywood – or aimed at becoming something from Hollywood – now follows that rule. And so the Matrix is the same story as Harry Potter is the same story as the Star Wars prequels are the same story as…

I’ve actually had arguments on comics message boards (before realising what a horribly stupid idea that is) with people who have insisted, against all the evidence, that it is literally impossible for a story to be told that *doesn’t* fit the monomyth. This is to be expected from people who define themselves as ‘geeks’, who generally like more than anything else to have things be the same as other things, and nice little boxes to put everything in.

But what’s annoying more than anything is that actual *writers* fall for this. Neil Gaiman does it all the time, and it’s a shame because at his best Gaiman really is as good as his reputation ( some of the short stories in Smoke & Mirrors are absolutely superb), but whenever Gaiman starts going on about THE POWER OF STORY, it’s always *this* story he’s talking about.

But what really surprises me is the fascination the monomyth has for Grant Morrison. Morrison tends for the most part to have a healthy disregard for rules – except when those rules have a veneer of new-ageyness, when his critical thinking goes out of the window. And so told that there are rules about how stories should go, but that those rules come from JUNGIAN ARCHETYPES! and are based in ANCIENT MYTHS!, suddenly Morrison starts following them, and we see the monomyth underlaying almost all Morrison’s writing (with notable ‘experimental’ exceptions such as New Adventures Of Hitler – and even there, someone will be along in the comments to talk about how it follows the pattern exactly).

Luckily, he’s a good enough writer to get away with this for the most part – something like All-Star Superman is simultaneously as formulaic as a Patrick Troughton Doctor Who story and as personal a work as anything ever created – much like Bach, in fact, Morrison manages at his best to turn his strict adherence to a restrictive formalism into an advantage.

Morrison has not yet done this in Joe The Barbarian, though to be fair he’s only had two issues.

Joe The Barbarian is a mini-series by Morrison and Sean Murphy (though only Morrison is credited as ‘creator’ – and incidentally, the name of the associate editor is Pornsak Pichetshote, which has now overtaken Wade Von Grawbadger as my favourite comic-person name of all time), and for a Morrison comic it’s had surprisingly little criticism, positive or negative, as yet online (I mean proper criticism, not stuff like this, which is one of the most comprehensive examples of point-missing I’ve ever read), other than one memorable comment which said the comic (about a kid hallucinating from diabetes) made diabetes seem a lot more fun than it probably is…

Because so far, the comic, while good, has definitely been lacking. Sean Murphy’s art is gorgeous, as is, of course, Dave Stewart’s colouring (though it will probably look better on better quality paper), and the story definitely has potential… but so far it’s seemed very much like Morrison doing a few of Grant Morrison’s Greatest Hits (the hallucinations being very similar to Flex Mentallo, the Dead Dad stuff…) over a basic Hero’s Journey skeleton.

Now it’s entirely possible I’m missing something ( I know Joe is going to be a key ingredient in David A’s article for PEP! 2, which suggests there’s a lot of interesting stuff to say about it), and I’m *certain* it’s going to get better – Grant Morrison has never done anything I’ve found uninteresting, even when the work has fallen completely flat there’s something interesting about it. But right now, to be honest, this feels *exactly* like a Generic Early-90s Vertigo Title (as opposed to the *actual* early-90s Vertigo titles, which were often more interesting at the time than they seem in retrospect). It could so far have *VERY* easily have fitted in as an early Sandman ‘arc’, but not in a good way.

It’s still worth reading, and I’m sure that in a month or two I’ll be astonished at how Morrison has turned my initial lack of enthusiasm round. And on a purely craft level it’s never short of very good. But as Morrison’s first new creator-owned work since 2004 (Seaguy: Slaves Of Mickey Eye doesn’t count here as it’s a sequel to the 2004 series) it’s not yet as good as I’d hoped…

Incidentally, anyone who likes comics and good writing should be reading Too Busy Thinking About My Comics, because it is good writing about comics, by someone with enough taste to list Guess I’m Dumb by Glenn Campbell and You Don’t Know Me by Ray Charles in his profile (which is a lot of taste). Read it.

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