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.
Lovely review that cuts to heart of the comic’s appeal. It’s the dark side of comics, the dark side of contemporary Western fantasy life, but it doesn’t read as a lecture. It doesn’t offer solutions, and it isn’t simply about diagnosing problems, it feels far too much like the best and strangest psychological thrillers to be reduced in that way, although that seems to be a point some critics have missed.
Thanks, and I agree. It was nice to see David Hine link this from the Image Comics message board – means we’re not completely misreading the thing.
Yeah, it’s always great when a creator links you work or you hear down the grapevine that they’re fans, ala Mindless Ones and Morrison. I can’t imagine that we are misreading it, it wears its agenda on its sleeve, if you ask me.
I’m glad you posted this Andrew! Like Zom says it gets right to the heart of things, and there are a couple of very revealing bits in there.
The brief comparison to Joe the Barbarian is particularly apt, I think — in both comics there’s this wonderful confusion between where all of this madness originates. Is it in the protagonist, or is it in the rooms/comics they’re working their way through? This also ties in to your point about how there’s no shift in the art style in The Bulletproof Coffin – Kane weathers the look of the comic book pages a bit more, but otherwise you’re exactly right, and this does seem crucial here.
Just reread your post and noticed the Tom Scioli comparison. I was originally going to compare & contrast Kane and Scioli’s work in a footnote to my post, so it looks like we were on much the same frequency again!
As you say, there’s a definite difference in intent between the two artists. Scioli would turn the Bulletproof Coffin into an elaborately etched headplate for a cosmic monster. His Kirby is a psychedelic punk rock genius, and that’s great!
Kane’s a bit craftier than that though. His Bulletproof Coffin’s a regular Whiz Wagon, but it’s also a high speed trap, which… hey, nice to see that we both got linked to by Hine there!
For all that the comic is pretty clear about its intentions, I was still slightly worried that I was trapped in a vehicle of my own making here. Which I sort’ve am anyway, but it’s good to know that I’m not the only one…
My original plan for this essay would actually have been even closer to what you eventually posted – I cut out some of the stuff about Flex Mentallo and Philip K Dick because it would have looked like outright plagiarism of your post.
Bulletproof Coffin is one of those comics, like The Filth or some of Kirby’s stuff or Milligan’s Animal Man, that hits my own preoccupations so exactly that I could write about it for days, so seeing that you had such a similar take on it – and that Hine approves – is very reassuring.