August 17, 2012

KING CITY - We Need a Good Sandwich

This Review Originally Ran on Comics Bulletin.

Keith Silva: Let's begin with secrets, shall we? Way down, down deep in sub-basements of sub-sub basements, behind ''infamously unbreakable'' triple-level locks, an atypical Joe finds a ''real as toenails'' key to the city, a key to King City. Joe thinks: ''If the key is real, what else could be?'' Joe's thought keys in on an essential metaphor that unlocks the essence of King City, a quid pro quo that establishes a reality where: cats are weapons sharper than ''a drug knife you can have sex with'' or a ''two-fisted chainsword,'' gives ''mustache studies'' its overdue advancement and finds that the flavor of victory is always sweet while divorce tastes bitter even when it's sipped through a grape licorice straw; King City imagines a place of limitless inspiration and creativity. 
Creator Brandon Graham has built this King City to exist in a state (and with a style) of strategic hyper-spontaneity. Graham's story and art alike possess an "anything goes" aesthetic that fronts to look loose, a kind of constructed slouching indifference, all the while being simultaneously seamless, smart and put-together -- the Chuck D pose, sure assuredness. Locks, keys and hidden passageways abound in King City. Underground tunnels lead to secret networks, to places like ''Nowhere'' -- a sobriquet for a spy resupply station run by an old sasquatch (Lukashev) -- that's easy to find if you know where to look (hint: ''under the South Pipe freeway''). Why all the cloak-and-dagger, the games and the secrets? All rhetorical, I assure you, is nothing to fret about; puns for fun's sake. Locks are constructs like puzzles, barriers, literal gatekeepers designed to bar egress (ingress?) to a solution. A secret supposes a solution -- seek to find.  Going deeper; King City is a gestalt, a tight construction of sly catches, hidden hinges and clandestine compartments that reveal a unified whole of soul, scruples and love.         
Graham provides a guide -- a finder without a fee -- Joe. And Joe has a cat he carries in a pail. Joe is a cat master. Joe and the cat, Earthling J. J. Catingsworth the Third (or Earthling for short), take the reader behind all the curtains, between all the sliding doors and through the ''cervix entrance'' to expose all the bollicky bare-ass secrets King City can hide. B.F.D., dude with a cat slips by and sneaks around town, so what! This is no ordinary Joe and this is no familiar familiar. Joe and Earthling are insiders, natives, locals that make the reader feel less alien and more at home; Joe gives King City a lived in feel, homey, homie. King City is a weird and silly place, but for all its absurdity -- all the old north end gangs like the "Dealt-It Force," "Killadelphia" and "Louie Louie," the viciousness of the odd snot rocket, the growing threat of the Demon King and the fact that the protagonist uses a cat as a deadly weapon (as well as a telescope, a megaphone too) --King City stays authentic and never gets unreal. Now, that is weird, really weird and real too.  
Jason, Daniel, let's meet up at "C-cret Sandwich" to compare notes over some "squid taro bubble-T" and a fish cookie. Sound good?
Jason Sacks: You know, guys, I have a job that's really pretty great. It's not quite as great as being a TV reporter or teaching teenagers to love comic books, but the software world is pretty damn good. 
Yesterday, after we had gotten done arguing or negotiating with another difficult customer in South Africa or Singapore or wherever in the world, my boss and I were standing outside, enjoying the sun.
"Have you ever dropped acid, Jason?" he asked, then continued, "because I really enjoy dropping acid. It's an amazing, mind-expanding experience. You see the world in a very different way after your drop acid."
I felt a little embarrassed admitting in front of my very cool boss that I had never dropped acid. But I realized that I'd had a mind-expanding, subtly life-altering experience myself. "You might have dropped acid," I said, "but you've never read King City."
It's not that King City is surreal, really. In fact, in many ways King City is as real and honest and specific as the truths that your best friend tells you in confidence, the stories that he tells about drugs and regrets and passion and lost loves and the slow, specific, terrifying ways that relationships seem to slowly, inexorably, seem to flow to their sad and painful ends.
But King City is also the story of another world, a particular and specific world full of real, vivid life and intense humor and tremendous energy and secret passages and locks and keys and all that amazing wonderful unique crazy-ass sometimes dreamlike sometimes and fantastically real world that comes only from the incredibly fertile mind of Brandon Graham.
As you so adroitly say, Silva, the comic has a kind of strategic hyper-spontaneity. The story ebbs and flows, spins and winds around itself in a way that feels tremendously open and fresh while at the same time specific in subtle ways. You literally have no idea what will be happening from scene to scene, moment to moment, setting to setting -- while at the same time you can trust completely that Graham has a specific topography in his mind -- a gestalt that, yes, Silva, feels real and gets realer even as it gets strange and feels even stranger.
Elkin, did my acid trip write-up match your take on this dizzyingly imaginative city?
Daniel Elkin: Gentlemen, I've been eating a sandwich for what seems a really long time. It's a delicious sandwich, and I've been enjoying every bite. Each mouthful brings new tastes, and with each new taste I discover the answer to a secret I didn't know existed. I appreciate this sandwich for what it brings me. It fills my soul as much as it fills my stomach.
This aside, it's time, like Joe, to go deep. Behind all the hallucinatory side-feints and behind each locked door there is an overriding sentimentality behind King City. Brandon Graham is a poet of heartache who whispers his yawp with thin lines and devastating asides. He understands the pain inherent in parting.
"I hear it. What your heart is screaming as you tumble down this waterfall life."
"The last time we ever kissed hurt. 'Why didn't you try harder?'"
No sandwich in the world can dull the sharp tack touch of these moments. The hollow, the empty, the loss. We do want to connect. We want to be part of something more than ourselves. With others we become us. We don't fully arrive without that person whose eyes we look into and see therein who we know we are to be. 
King City is all about this, for me. Graham wants us to forget all that stuff we face out into the world -- it "seems like trying to put out a fire by shooting at it." We put on the Blue Mask of humor, of spelunking, of sweet ninja soccer moves, but Graham really just wants us to take the mask down off our faces and look ourselves in the eyes.  
It's okay to love. It's okay to put our relationships first. It's okay to let others save the world from the Chi-Nok-Tok, because right now, someone we love needs us. Us and our cat.
I think this is the secret. Graham makes a duplicate key in this book. The sandwich tells me so.
Keith: Man, (men) between the love, the loss and the soul of this review -- is that what we're doing here writing a review … of a comic book? -- it's like our own Dusty in Memphis. Bring on the Sweet Inspirations and the Memphis Cats! Each of you wrote (eloquently, of course) about the manic vitality, that crackling current that runs throughout King City: relationships. Who wouldn't want to hang out one-at-a-time or all at once with Joe, Pete, Max, Anna and Illendoyon? Call it, instant amity.
I hesitate to use the word "childlike" (whoop, there it is) when thinking/writing about King City. As Jason says, there is "crazy-ass dreamlike" quality to this story. Graham inserts a connect-the-dots puzzle, for goodness sakes. What's more of a universal childhood joy than playing connect-the-dots? Maybe, that's it. Maybe it's playfulness (and joy) that works better as a way to describe Graham's style, yeah? Pete and Joe's friendship resides in that space only reserved for "your-best-friend-when-you're-nine-or-ten," God, what a wonderful place to be in! I mean, come on, only your best friend would know where to find you (in "Nowhere" no less) after he consults with "The Octopus." Each scene with Pete and Joe (and Earthling) is so chill, nothing is forced, it's got an "After Midnight" feel about it; it all just… hangs out. And that's the whole damn book, so "at home" with itself -- King City be King City. Yes?
I like to fool myself into thinking I'm well-read, but I can't name another story (Ulysses?) where body and bawdy humor is so in-your-face. All the pissing, pooping and farting (girl farts, no less!) it's played for potty humor, yes, but it's, like, I dunno, graduate-grade potty humor. It's self-aware, the characters and the story are so at home with themselves that they have zero reservations about pissing their initials in snow or wiggling their sweaty, skunk fish fungus, hot dog fart-smelling feet in someone else's face. It's human, King City is a human story.    
If Joe and Pete are a distillation of the irreplaceable love of a childhood friendship than Max and Anna's relationship is what happens when that love evolves and becomes real love. Anna has moved on, Joe has not. Does this make Joe a romantic because he pines for what is lost? Is he supposed to be some species of man-child common to a Judd Apatow joint? I think what flattens out what could be (in the hands of a less fecund mind) and would be a clichéd love triangle between Joe, Anna and Max is the authenticity (again, the realness), of the love between Anna and Maximum "Max" Absolute. I absolutely love them together! Each has been through the wars, been scarred, been hurt, and each has stitched themselves back together like that stuffed marmoset (another activity that Graham invites the reader to take part in). Max and Anna exhibit (perhaps) another flavor of that self-awareness, self-confidence that only comes from experience. That's it isn't it? When one knows how to trip all the tumblers, side-step the secret passageways, fart and not give a shit, that's a learned thing, that's experience, that's King City
Relationships of any stripe are upkeep, they require maintenance. Experience takes the 'long cut,' so please accept my apologies for cutting to the quick and ending on this post on this note: the playfulness of King City works so well because it is about something, an intangible. Credit Graham's artful sense of humor when he gives the story's most prescient and purest piece of advice to a character named Mudd: ''Take care of your people now.'' The care the characters show one another, the care that Graham shows in every panel, in all the detail, that's King City.King City cares.
Jason, Daniel, what say we sit down to some "egg faces" and chew on some more King City? ''Via con gato.'' And, oh yeah, leave the hummus.      
Jason: Yeah, for all the bright complexity of the amazing city that's on display in all its mindboggling intricacy in this comic, all the breathtaking scene-setting and the strange, almost metaphysical way that our main characters interface with their city, what really makes this comic sing and shine and stick in the memory is the breathtaking character interaction and the almost metaphysical way that our main characters interface with each other. These are people with complexity and depth and feelings to go along with their intense coolness. 
It's like getting to hang out with the most interesting people at a fascinating party, only to discover that those people are also just plain wonderful people -- caring, smart,  deeply in love with each other , embracing high and low -- the farts and smelly feet along with the secret passageways and all kinds of sharp tack touches.
The whole book is full of that juxtaposition between high and low, with moments of great intimacy and emotional power that flow quickly into moments of sheer complex inventive insanity and lowness. You can't separate the two elements one from the other -- each gives each other their ineffable, inescapable power. The astonishingly weird setting keeps the drama from getting too mawkish, while the astonishingly intimate characterization keeps the weirdness from getting too off-putting.
So we get a line like "Behind the map is another map. It looks like it shows all the evil spots in King. Bad joo joo. Lots of evil pet shops." followed by a deeply sweet and emotional scene followed by a moment that accentuates all the tremendously weird people who live in this city -- truth and truth and more truth piled atop each other, all different truths shown and portrayed differently from each other in completely different ways.
Do you see any lies in my story, Elkin?
Daniel: I see every lie in every story, Sacks, because that's what all stories are -- ultimately -- lies. But what makes a story stick is when the lies reveal all the truths that we need to know. And that's where Brandon Graham steps in. That's where King City creates the map for the journey.
And journeys are all about passage: through time, through space, through each other's lives. What's interesting is that we don't really appreciate all the passageways we wander unless there is some sort of impediment blocking us from reaching our goal. When we overcome is when we look back.  
Oh, and locks can't fulfill their function without there being a passage of some sort first. Picking the lock is an act of overcoming, while at the same time creating.
So maybe King City is a Bildungsroman? Perhaps it is all about Joe learning to be a man. Perhaps it is a story about growing up. Perhaps it is, like you said Silva, a "human story."
A human story with farts, though. I take your Ulysses, Silva, and raise you a Canterbury Tales --specifically The Miller's Tale -- because it contains the finest examples of literary farts.
Literary or not, though, our flatulence is only a byproduct of the necessities of existence. There is a lot of eating in King City. Making food is another act of creation, another act of artistic expression, of overcoming obstacles -- through an individual's industry, raw materials are combined into something new and exciting and delicious  -- but it is the one form of expression that is most intricately tied to the very fabric of life. We devour it in order to survive. It maintains us and allows us to move forward in space and time -- through the passages -- around the locks -- to become who we are.
We need the egg faces. We need the humus. We need a good sandwich.
But this too, like any act of creation, can be perverted into something "Weird and cruel." Take, for example, "a live fish tied to a dead fish wrapped in hundred dollar bills." It is these sorts of locks that, perhaps, Graham is telling us to be wary of, to avoid being distracted by, as they might lead us down passageways away from ourselves.
I draw no conclusions. I hem and I haw my way through this -- with wishy in one hand and washy in the other. But I know King City tells our story in a uniquely beautiful way. I know Brandon Graham is not dawdling or doodling in this tale, but is speaking to us through his sequential panels and the languages of secrets and locks and passageways and sandwiches.
Keith: Holy Cat Master General! By Jove, Elkin, there is a lot of eating going on in this story and here I was thinking it was all about secrets and love. Eating sandwiches, drinking juice, and hauling a doughnut making machine to a stakeout are all communal acts, no? After sex, sharing a meal is one of the most intimate and physical acts we humans participate in; Christ, religions have been founded on sitting down at a table -- in a locked back room, no less -- and having a meal with close friends.
Jason, I like your idea about how Graham layers "different truths portrayed in different ways" one on top of one another. This sort of jackstraw pile creates complexity, a sort of compost that provides rich ground for ideas and interpretations. Another point that you make Jason, is how each element of this story is a complement (and a balance) to its corresponding pieces and therefore to the whole. Perfect. And exactly what I was trying to say with the whole King City gestalt thing.
In all our navel-gazing and nattering about relationships and food, I don't want to lose sight thatKing City is a damn ball of action, excitement and cool. King City is everything that I loved about comic books growing up, that rush of wanting, needing to not become, but to be a superhero. Joe and Earthling's adventures reminded me that as a boy, I would tie my Superman beach towel around my neck like a cape and go sprinting down the strand and jumping off lifeguard chairs and sand dunes. Superheroes are silly. Graham wants readers to embrace the joy and the verve of what it's like to be a hero, a cat master.
One could say that King City is, in fact, a superhero comic (I think I just did). What are Joe and Earthling other than a dynamic duo? Not to mention Pete Tailfighter (natch) a do-gooder who wears a mask and makes it his mission to save a damsel in distress -- okay, he was responsible for putting said damsel in said distress, but he wants to do right, right? The scenes with Maximum Absolute in Korea as he fights the zombie hordes, well, that's a two fisted genre chainsword right there. Beebay, the femme fatale with the Coke bottle physique who carries a "penetration pen-knife," "small arm lighters" and "folding Ouija board," it's easy to see how her ass fills out the spy genre quite well. It's clear that Graham loves comic book superheroes, their tropes and their wackiness. The juxtapositions Jason points out are clear as Mudd; high and low, silly and serene,King City has it all and how.
There's a panel in the C-cret Sandwich scene that I thought summed up this comic well. Pete tells Anna that some of her recent mustache art is near the place he and Joe share -- Red Monkey's old place, for anyone keeping score at home. Mr. Monkey (or Red, I suppose), according to Joe, grew ''huge Venus fly traps,'' as one does when on lives in Shadowtown. Joe recalls how Red Monkey, ''got in a fight with one of his plants. It stole his gold magic hand and he had to break his lease to chase it to South America.'' Go ahead, try and parse that shit, only in a comic book, onlyin a comic book. Anna responds: ''That's so crazy.'' To which Pete adds, ''But not surprising.'' That, to me, is what King City (and comic books) is and should be about: "crazy, but not surprising."
I'm going to see if I can find a beach towel, a pail and one of the kid's stuffed cat toys and go play in the backyard.
Jason: Sure and that superhuman quality is a big part of what makes this book so magical -- from the moment that Earthling appears on the page, working magic with keys in scenes that frankly left my chin agape, full of shock and wonder at the awesome strange mysteries implied, this book fully embraces both its superhero antecedents and its own thoroughly unique take on super-power, magic, zombies and all the stuff and bother of early 21st century comics.
You can see the faint echoes of Steve Ditko in the embrace of the magical awesomeness of Earthling and the nearly infinite list of things that the kitty can do. But at the same time you can see Moebius in the thoroughgoing and convincing organization of alien worlds, magic, intimacy, the personal amidst the grandeur. And most of all, we see Brandon Graham and his unique vision, ensuring that everything we see is crazy but not surprising.
That might be the greatest shock of all in reading this book -- not that odd, fascinating, funny, sometimes inexplicable events happen, but that this book isn't filled with a zillion deus ex machina. If there was ever a book that could legitimately feature literal gods from the machine, it's King City, but instead Graham pulls off real breathtaking magic, real literary cleverness in the way that he makes everything feel -- well, not real because the unreality of this book is part of why it's so great -- but he makes everything feel grounded, specific, particular and defined. Readers may not be able to anticipate the specifics -- and again, that's part of the brilliance of this work -- but the fact that there are specifics makes this book much, much more than a masturbatory exploration of the inside of Brandon Graham's brain.
Guys, we've been remiss in not discussing Brandon's art directly in our discussion of this book. An analysis of the art has been implied in everything we've said, but we need to talk about how perfectly art and story work together to deliver a story that's much more than you can get in any other medium. 
The art here is as inventive and interesting and incredibly goddamn clever as the elements that are portrayed. The art is full of visual puns and outlandish machinery and all the crazy, bizarre, breathtaking of King City and is residents while simultaneously keeping readers attached to the characters. Again, in the art the juxtaposition of the personal and the grand is perfectly balanced, with all the stuff and bother and details of everyday life reveals the unexpected strangeness of the world that is shown. Graham's deceptively simple linework belies a surprising complexity, some incredibly clever and interesting storytelling, and an immersive world that I wanted to visit again and again. The damn ball of action, excitement and cool is a visual tour de force -- vital, exciting and tremendously inventive.
Guys, how do you see the visuals of this story working with the themes that Graham is exploring?
Daniel: Perfectly. Graham 's art is both a masterwork of understatement and a doctorate class on filling every single inch of the panel with all kinds of awesome. As far as I am concerned, Graham knows completely and fully understands when to do which and why. 
And that's pretty impressive.
King City is a profound statement and a visual treat. I say that not only because I mean it entirely, but also because I know they are looking for a pull quote.
But anyway, I got a few more bites left on this sandwich, so I'll let Silva do all the smart talking from here.
Keith: Cake frosting, Elkin. In my many strolls across King City (so far), I’m struck by how much space there is in the place. I read an interview Graham gave in which he talked about how he was a graffiti artist for a time and that's when the penny dropped. Graffiti is about scale, big canvases like the sides of tankers or refrigerator cars, brick walls, public spaces -- the city as canvas. Graffiti is personal too, a literal mark that "I was here." Graham tags King City with diminutive details, details on details, to borrow a phrase from Jason. These truths on top of truths are -- all of them -- personal, but it's all (confined) in the open spaces, in the images of the city itself. A place to see and to be seen, it is also, I think, when Graham's art is at its most personal and open.
Even amidst their most heroic moments, Joe and Earthling never get to make a splash. No two-page spreads and not even one money-shot of Joe and Earthling in action. The showdown with the ''4-Eyed cross-ray visionary'' ninja, the fight with the old man from the coffin, the cat butt attack, all of it gets confined to a panel or a set of panels,  the layouts are often inventive or unique, but never full-on, full-page Joe and Earthling action. King City, however, always goes big.
As any reader of the re-jiggered Prophet knows, Brandon Graham gets space. Jason, you pointed out the "simple complexity" of Graham's lines. What I think makes those lines both simple and complex is the space between those lines, that "capital N" Negative space. Graham's eye for the composition of King City itself is so fearless. Outside, in the city, characters become details no less (or more) than billboards, shop signs, more scribbled tags in the bigger picture.
When Pete, Joe and Earthling go out to "Sheep Eats" (Chapter 4, "Eggface"), Graham uses three different compositional techniques to show the size of King City, the landscape that this "detail" of friends moves through. First, Graham draws the tried-and-true comic book storytelling staple: the nine-panel grid. In Graham's hands it becomes a study of electrical wires, lampposts and rooftop edges, images that look like they were pulled straight from a warm-up exercise in Graham's sketchbook. Nine simple shots that tell a story of an urban environment, lines of communication moving in all directions all at once; so simple, throwaway moments (details) that give King City character without dialogue, nothing said, everything understood.
Below the grid, in the bottom third of the page is a wide-screen single panel street view of the "warriors three" and they are not alone. Graham crams 16 other humans (?) into the frame, that's not counting a dog and a brain in a jar. And then there are the signs, the ads, the stickers, the numbers, the words, the arrows, 'busy' somehow falls short as a descriptor. Joe and the gang are lost in the crowd, more scenery in a crowded scene. A turn of the page and the sky opens up in a fish-eye view of the city-scape from below, the tall buildings curve around an open sky, boundless buildings bowed down to immensity, eternity, space. It's a poetic image, it means nothing to the plot and everything to the story and to King City. The details in Graham's drawings overwhelm, but it's this kind of detail -- an open sky ringed by buildings -- that defines King City, an open space, crazy, but not impossible to imagine.
I'd like to think of that jagged sky as a canvas, an invite from Graham to the reader (the artist) to add some detail, some secret, something personal; a space to inspire, a space like King City.      

Post-script: Brandon Graham graciously agreed via a tweet (seriously, follow him:@royalboiler) to add some comments about our review and the personal side of King City. -- Keith

Brandon Graham: Thanks for all the nice words on the book. This is all horrible for my ego. I've never done acid either, Jason. I'm always reluctant to call my stuff dream-like; I think it's mostly that I have really boring dreams. Zzzzzzzz. But I did grow up on a lot of work that I loved, but didn't quite understand, so hopefully it's a little of that in there. I was thinking about the difference between something asking you to be an active reader (as opposed to a passive reader) and not always getting every answer, making you to think about the stuff you've read. 
Maybe childlike is right. I try pretty hard to maintain that fun I got from comics when I was a kid, even if it evolves into something more adult. I was joking the other day about how at 35 I've almost mastered being a teenager. 
I tend to think of food as a nice way to make something relatable to the reader, plus I just like reading about things that I like to do -- eating, sleeping and all that. 
There's a lot of thinly masked autobiographical stuff. Pete is based off my real best pal since I was a teenager. Red Monkey, who Pete and Joe get their apartment from, is a real guy who does art out in the Netherlands. I'm always trying write about my life though the comic book madness that I grew up on. 

Mr. Silva is a recent relapsed reader of comic books, loves alliteration and dies a little inside each time he can’t use an oxford comma in his reviews for Comics Bulletin. He spends most days waiting for files to render except on occasion when he can slip the bonds of editing and amble around cow barns, run alongside tractors and try not to talk while the camera is running. When not playing the fool for the three women he lives with, he reads long, inscrutable novels with swear words.  He recently took single malt Scotch and would like to again, soon. 
Follow Keith on Twitter at @keithpmsilva or (for the more adventurous soul) read his blog,Interested in Sophisticated Fun?

Jason Sacks is Publisher of Comics Bulletin. Follow him at @jasonsacks, email him or friend him on Facebook.

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