Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Trade Waiting - King City by Brandon Graham

American comic books, such a beautiful thing. But like most beautiful things, adoration from the many (or the few) has led the power players in the industry to rest on their laurels and produce an increasingly familiar product that is somewhat akin to wearing a pair of slippers; nice, comfortable yet not something that is going to change the world. (There is nothing necessarily wrong with this by the way.) Knowing full well that there is more to the medium than superheroes, Image Comics and in particular publisher Eric Stephenson have took great lengths to diversify their line to a point that they have now become one of the most exciting talent farms in all of entertainment, not just comics. One of the most critically acclaimed books to come out of the publishers in recent years is King City, the Christian Louboutin heel of the comics’ world, by the talented Brandon Graham. Does King City have the substance to back up the masses of style it has between the covers? Find out after the jump.

King City by Brandon Graham
Published by Image Comics / Tokyopop

A labour of love for Brandon Graham, King City looked destined to be one of those books like Young Heroes in Love or Flex Mentallo (ironically, just reprinted last month) for DC that regardless of quality would be stuck in legal/creative limbo, due to the financial meltdown of original publisher Tokyopop. Thankfully, Image Comics stepped into the breach and saved the title from extinction and it’s them who we have to thank for letting Graham finish the story he had to tell and for the recently released, beautiful soft cover collection.

The stars of the book are Joe, and his cat Earthling J.J. Catingsworth. (Well not really, but more on that later.) Joe is a cat master, which in essence is a ninja who uses a cat as a weapon. Before Peta get involved it has to be said that this isn’t an ordinary cat, Earthling is like a Swiss army knife with the brain of a genius, with abilities to do anything that Joe (and by extension, Graham) wants him to, with the aid of some handy performance enhancing syringes. Joe has returned to King City after five years of training and quickly re-establishes his friendship with Balaclava wearing, nice guy Pete. From here on out the story kicks into overdrive, introducing supporting cast members and plotlines aplenty including femme fatale, boss of the owl gang and sometimes lover of Joe, Beebay, and Joe’s paint bombing ex girlfriend Anna and her war veteran boyfriend Max, and in what is possibly the main sub plot contained within the book, a water breathing alien slave girl that quickly becomes the object of Pete’s affections.

Graham is incredibly brave in his storytelling choices, often taking the tale down the path you least expect. Eschewing what is expected within the tropes of the playground that he is playing in, particularly in regards to Joe, a hero in the loosest possible sense; Graham has actually made the city itself the star of the book. As such, scenes that would have been integral to the plot in other stories become virtually inconsequential in King City. This allows Graham to focus on what really matters to him, the development of the relationships between the main characters and the consequences of their decisions, letting a lot of the other plot points play out in the background. This plays to Graham’s strengths as the man is clearly an idea factory, and some of the ideas that other writers would have spent a whole book giving credence to, he will utilise for one panel and then quickly forget about them. This adds to the illusion of King City actually existing and could have easily meant that this could have been a four thousand page book rather than a four hundred page one.

For a book that is packed to the rafters with fantastical elements what surprises most is how human the main cast are and how realistic the actions they take end up being. Drug use, survivor’s guilt, the lack of getting over lost loves, and dealing with the ramifications of the mistakes you have made in the past are themes that Graham tackles head on with a respect and consideration that is rarely seen in western media. No where is this more prevalent than in the character of Max, Anna’s war vet boyfriend. Max is addicted to Chalk, a drug that eventually makes the user become it, as seen when Max’s dealer breaks off his own finger so the two can snort it. (Once again, Graham is an idea machine.) Max knows that what he is doing will eventually kill him yet struggles to get to grips with his experiences and what he had to do during the Korean Zombie War (idea machine.) Another good example of this is Pete, a character that spends most of the book wallowing in regret due to some actions he had to perform for his job only to decide that his (and someone else’s) happiness is more important. Graham also goes to great lengths to avoid clich├ęs when dealing with relationships. Joe clearly is still in love with Anna but is adult and respectful enough to realise that she, to an extent, is over him and happy with her new relationship. Similarly his portrayal of the no strings attached relationship that Joe and Beebay have rings true, almost antiseptic in its clinical coldness.

To say that the art in King City is beautiful is an understatement. The amount of affection and detail that Graham pours into each page make most other examples of entertainment, not just comics, look redundant. Graham has been very open about who his influences are but even without knowing they are easy to spot, the cheesecake of Shirow, the architecture and expressiveness of Moebius and Otomo, the sheer absurdity of Bode, yet there is no doubt that he is his own artist. You can see the effect that being a graffiti artist had on him, there is no corners being cut and every panel is incredibly heavy on detail, often with visual jokes thrown in for measure. Everything within the panels is carefully placed, even down to the road signs with witty names and the background characters that each has their own personality. Graham also has fun with form, inserting games such as a real crossword that can be completed and a board game with characters you can cut out and use into the book and more impressively, adding to the narrative. Something else that he deserves a large amount of credit for is his intelligent character designs. Each one has something that makes them unique such as Joe’s hair, Pete’s balaclava or Max’s stitches, that even when reduced to almost stick figures are still recognisable. All this and that’s not even mentioning Graham’s mastery of the female form, which whilst not exactly realistic, are incredibly beautiful and sexualised without being smutty. As a bonus, we are treated to back up strips by both Graham himself and others such as wife Marian Churchland and friend and studio mate James Stokoe, and inkeeping with the ‘pack as much detail as you can’ feel of the book there are even new mini strips within the folds of the cover

Verdict – Buy It

By refusing to do what is expected within the confines of the industry, Brandon Graham has created a comic that is both contemporary and timeless all at once. The story can be melancholic, hilarious, and exciting, all often in the same chapter. His artwork is clean and stylish while at the same time being packed with small details, often funny and leading to distraction. On top of all this Image Comics, as is increasingly becoming the norm, have outdone themselves with the presentation of this soft cover, proving to over companies that soft cover collections don’t have to look like science textbooks. Nigh on perfect and without a doubt bound to be on many a best of list come the end of the year.

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Sam said...

I might check this out now...

Colt said...

Seriously, every comic reader should have this on their shelf. Especially since it's only $11, through Amazon. For a 424-page book, that's one of the best values in comics.

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