October 24th, 2010
OR: Riding The Bulletproof Coffin With Shaky Kane & David Hine!
When it comes to comics, The Bulletproof Coffin has annihilated the competition in 2010. This is fitting, because The Bulletproof Coffin is all about the creepy, destructive power of your (my?) favourite medium. Like the vehicle of the book’s title, comics are a fun thing to bury yourself in, but whatever way you look at it you’re still getting buried, right?
For those who came in late… well, if you’re allergic to plot synopses (which is to say: if you’re a reasonably functional human being!), go read the first issue for free then come back. If overexposure to the Internet has left you with a high tolerance for such nonsense, then the book’s about Steve Neuman, a “void contractor” who stumbles onto an idiot’s bounty of comics, toys and collectible crap in a dead man’s house. As per an arrangement he has with his boss, he takes this stuff home, and the ever porous borders between real life and fantasy start to let stuff filter through just like you’d expect they would.
All of this seems a little simplistic when described, but this is a far more precise and specific piece of work than I’ve made it sound. It’s all about points of impact – between the gnarled, blocky shapes Kane sets up on the page, between one unsavoury colour and another and between pulp fantasy and pulped reality. Like so:
Comics are what happens when words & pictures smash into each other, of course, and like Harvey Pekar said, you can do anything with words & pictures. So why, more often than not, do we do this:
An answer by way of a list!
Things you can do with your Bulletproof Coffin:
1. GET OUT OF THE HOUSE & HAVE YOURSELF A REAL WILD TIME!
Not like that, you feckless prevert! Still, there’s no denying that the temptation’s there, eh? The urge to take this bad-boy out for a spin, to take it to the open road and re-enact the chase scene from Batman Begins, only a bit more goth – which, given the inherent goth factor involved in recreating scenes from a Batman movie, makes the whole idea pretty much NoneMoreGoth, right? The trouble being that it’s a paper vehicle, so no matter how bad-ass it looks (more metal than goth, no?) you can’t actually drive it anywhere. To state otherwise would make you look like Monty Burns on the come down.
Still, this papery quality is part of the appeal. Like the newly re-energised Brendan McCarthy, Shaky Kane’s images are joyously two dimensional – his people look like you could reach down into the page and just peel them out of their environment, and his vehicles and buildings look like they’d take only a little more effort to dislodge. The big difference is that where McCarthy’s paper people tend to drift through Ditkodelic landscapes, all blurred colours and tightly bound psycho-spirals, Kane’s look like carefully posed Kirby cut-outs, every line sharp enough to give you a paper cut.
That saucy young gun Matt Seneca said something similar when the first issue came out. In fact, he went even further:
Slapped with flat, bright Kool-Aid colors and full of open space broken up only by tiny pen-marks indicating a creeping-in of dirt and decay, Kane’s panels are aggressive things that scream comics! so loud that passersby can hear them. (Literally: a dude was reading this over my shoulder on the subway.)
His art revels in the machine-made plasticity of comics, characters’ figures approximating reality more with their sheer awkwardness than any “human” movement or grace. This is comics art that is in love with the flatness of the printed page, any rendering lines drawn for the joy of the markmaking and not any illusion of three-dimensionality.
So maybe you can’t literally ride in The Bulletproof Coffin, but it’s still a great vehicle to explore the never-ending flatlands of inner space with. The joy involved in The Bulletproof Coffin is definitely Kirby-tinged (Kirby-edged, maybe?), so whatever areas of your psyche you travel to, you’ll find them populated by block-jawed maniacs and strange creatures that crackle with pulp vitality.
Which suits me, but then again it would, wouldn’t it? I was already lost down there before The Bulletproof Coffin turned up.
Does that sound like a cry for help to you, or just the cry of one long since buried?
Answers on a postcard to the usual address!
2. TAKE THE WIFE & KIDS OUT FOR A SPIN!!
Just because you’re fantasising doesn’t mean you can’t include your beloved family in your feverish imaginings. Take a look at these two lil’ angels:
You wouldn’t want to leave them behind right? Right. Just don’t be surprised when you start to get confused about what matters. The further you travel in The Bulletproof Coffin, the more it seems like Steve Neoman is experiencing a VALIS style awakening-cum-horrible psychotic breakdown (which, hey – here’s a random Philip K. Dick link!):
Whatever you say buddy!
That the reader is complicit in this madness is assured by Kane and Hine’s evil magic – are Ramona and those pint-sized monsters literally Steve’s wife & kids, or are they analogues of his wife and kids? If so, why do Samantha look so much like Ramona (exactly like her?)? Are the kids really dressing up in those outfits and conspiring against him, or is this just more of Steve’s psychic sickness manifesting? This visual confusion might not excuse the zest with which Our Hero throws himself into four colour fantasy, but it does help to keep us confused about whether the different levels of the narrative are really different levels at all.
So as we sit down with Steven, in a room full of goofy wonders, it’s easy to sync up with him as he immerses himself in a good old fashioned funny book. And so when this character bursts out of the page at you…
…well, you probably wouldn’t drop everything to save her, and you might look badly on Steve for being so quick to decide that she’s realer than real, but hey – you at least know where he’s coming from eh? EH?
Yeah, that’s what I thought – I’m on to you, with your creepy “adult” comics. Just another scumbag – you make me sick, punk, sick to my stomach. But don’t worry, you’ll get yours, and trust me, the punishment will fit the crime!
3. LIVE OUT YOUR DARKEST FRANK MILLER FANTASIES IN THE COMFORT OF YOUR OWN SECOND HAND PYJAMAS!!!
This refrain — “Let the punishment fit the crime!” — echoes through the second issue of The Bulletproof Coffin, courtesy of the character/comic Shield of Justice, which Steve salivates over in an appropriately goonish manner:
Now while this is a pretty neat send up of some of the nastier thrills that punks like you(&me?) might get from their superhero comics, that doesn’t mean that Kane and Hine are calling us out as bedroom fascists. No, I’ve read that comic, it was called Eightball #23, The Death Ray. The reading of superhero comics that “Dancing” Dan Clowes provides in that comic is a perfect match for the reading of punk rock which one its characters articulates:
“It makes me want to kill somebody” – do superhero comics have that effect on you? Well, maybe sometimes!
Let’s be honest though, no one would blame you if you got confused between the protagonists of these two books if you met one of them in a darkened alley. I mean just look at the fuckers:
Figure 1 – The common Coffin Fly
Figure 2 – the lesser-spotted Death Ray
This confusion wouldn’t last for long if you followed these creatures home and observed them in their natural habitats. Clowes’s characters are every bit as flat as Kane’s, but even in this superhero story, they’re a carefully etched mess of ugly hateful faces and ungainly limbs. The landscapes that his Death Ray, Andy, exists in aren’t much different from the haunted suburbia inhabited by Enid Coleslaw, so when action occurs in Eightball #23 it’s almost necessarily underwhelming, the better to imply that this is all a critique of America’s geopolitical mindset, or a story about serial killer in second hand PJs.
Back in The Bulletproof Coffin, meanwhile, our friend Steve “The Coffin Fly” Neyman exists in a world of “comics-within-comics where EC comics, Kirby, Steranko, and ’90s Image all kind of happened at once to create this alternate comics history“, as the lad Sean Witzke recently put it. What this means is that it’s very easy to get off on these tales of creepily righteous punishment, to actively enjoy looking at the sickly greenish-beige of a rapist’s face, just knowing that it’s about to get thrillingly bashed to a blood-flecked black! Furthermore, what Kane and Hine understand is that it’s possible to find this dumb shit exciting while still understanding that it’s pretty fucked up and perverse to do so.
I’m not sure that The Bulletproof Coffin opens out into a broader social critique like Eightball #23, but it manages to reconcile the vengeful, Steve Ditko on a rampage school of comics with the knowing strangeness of the Arnold Drake school better than most anything else.
4. BREAK THE FOURTH WALL, LEAVING ALL CERTAINTY SHATTERED IN YOUR WAKE!!!!
Awww shit, I think I’m going to have to steal from Matt Senca again. Here’s Shaky himself, sounding off in an interview with your (my?) new favourite blogger:
I’ve got a comic book here in front of me, happens to be my favorite cover, it’s Batman #188. Now on the front it reads: “WHOOSH! HERE COMES THE RUBBER-HEADED VILLAIN — THE ERASER WHO TRIED TO RUB OUT BATMAN!” It shows this villain shaped like a pencil actually erasing the Dynamic Duo from the front cover. Are they drawings? So how come they’re reacting in alarm? Is this Meta? Is it Post Modern?
The book came out in 1966.
I bought it as a kid. I never had a problem with it! I wasn’t a comic book critic, I wasn’t even that smart, I just liked the way the guy looked in the pencil costume. It’s comic books, it’s not anchored to the physical world.
Even before I remembered this quote, I was going to take care when discussing this aspect of The Bulletproof Coffin. You see, as Shaky Kane and David Hine and Grant Morrison and Stan Lee and Steve Gerber and Adam Warren and Bryan Lee O’Malley all know perfectly damn well, what we call “metafiction” is actually just part of the basic technology of comics, particularly superhero comics.
Now this is actually quite a deceptive mechanism, but as Kane indicates above, this stuff is no problem for kids. Kids are perfectly capable of grasping that they are being sold shit while still thinking that it’s the best and most important thing of all time – I wrote an essay about the way my understanding of commercialism and mortality has been permanently damaged by those old UK Transformers comics, it’s in issue #2 of Andrew Hickey‘s excellent PEP! magazine and you should really give it a read when you’re done here.
So, anyway: this habit of rupturing the fourth wall, of reminding the reader that they’re not really part of the action (as if they could ever forget!) is like a little shot of cynicism used to prevent a full blown infection, a mix of crude art and even cruder hucksterism. For all its obviousness, this gambit can be amusingly effective — it reassures the reader that everyone involved has the same attitude towards the comic that they do, while also making them feel more involved. Of course it’s trash, of course it’s silly, but nevertheless, THIS DOES MATTER!
Buy this comic, friend, or the UNIVERSE DIES AT DAWN!
Poor Steve Noman isn’t privy to such distinctions, being rather less resistant to the whims of his authors than most of us. He doesn’t know he’s a drawing, but if a rubber-headed pencil monster came at him you can be damn sure that he’d panic like he did.
No matter how this turns out for Steve, it’s good news for the rest of us. If the vivid awkwardness Kane’s figures hints at the awkwardness of “real” people, as Matt Seneca claimed, then the awkwardness of Kane and Hine’s overlapping fictional universes does the same trick with the “real” world (“the real fuckin’ world?”). The appeal of this is surely easy to grasp – if we’re going to get into the hard shit, the difficult questions about who we are and what we actually care about, isn’t it best to frame them in a way that at least approximates fun?
Hold on, flip back a page — difficult questions about who we are and what we actually care about? When did those enter the equation? Well, the truth is that they’ve been there all along, that they’re what this comic is all about, inasmuch as its about anything beyond Shaky Kane drawing amazing things and David Hine putting funny captions above them. Because here’s the great thing, it turns out Kane and Hine were operating more on the Morrison end of that scale than the Warren/O’Malley end. Not that there’s anything wrong with either of those artists – Scott Pilgrim and Empowered are two of the most straight-up engaging and enjoyable comics of the past decade, after all, and the direct addresses to the audience are a big part of their appeal – but my heart’s with the other shit, the Filthy shit, the Singing Detective shit, so I’m glad that Kane and Hine are digging into it here.
Letter pages, cut-outs, fake adverts, appearances by the book’s creators both within the issues themselves and in the backmatter… oh yeah, Kane and Hine are committed to getting you into this any way they can. Talented as they are, even they can’t dictate how you react to their material. What they can do is involve you in a disorienting little game in which one reader drives deep into his inner space and dredges up not pennies from heaven, but strange, disgusting objects which seem both suggestive of his life and far more appealing than it at the same time.
Attachment’s the name of the game, and isn’t that what this is always all about in the end? Yeah, probably (it says so in We3, which is of course the highest philosophical authority!), but attachment to what?
Well, if you’d read issues #1-3, you’d say attachment to the certainty of genre tropes, maybe – the bad guys will be punished, the hero will get the girl, everything will work out like it’s supposed to. So far, so typical, but with issue #4 you can see certainty receding off into the distance as Steve drives deeper still, dragging the rest of us hapless schmucks with him into a messy quest to find the authors of the comics he’s been both reading and appearing in…
Except, they’re actually a fictionalised version of these creators, so… maybe it’s an attachment to uncertainty that’s the real appeal here, an almost wilful derangement of the senses. Well, again that would suit me, wouldn’t it? After all, I’ve been stuck down here a long time so I need all the help I can get…
Keep on driving: only two more stops to go!
5. ESCAPE GHOSTLY FIGURES FROM A WORLD EVEN FLATTER THAN YOUR OWN!!!!!
No, not this little guy – he’s already had his moment in the sun. We’re talking about these guys now, the motherfucking Shadow Men, coming soon to a Neighbourhood Watch meeting near you:
It takes all of six pages for these sinister motherfuckers to turn up. The fact that they arrive just after Steve finds the treasure trove of crap in the dead man’s house is too obvious to ignore. But just what are they doing here?
Well, if superhero comics are a mirror-warped bastion of teleological certainty, then The Shadow Men strike me as being a terrifying reminder that this story is going somewhere. They’re literally the only black and white creatures in a multicoloured universe (DO YOU SEE?!), but more than that, they somehow manage to look even flatter than the other characters in the story. Or rather, they’ve got a different kind of flatness to them, like they’re coming in at the wrong angle or something.
They haven’t really done anything yet, but they’re a worrying presence all the same. You can drive as far or as deep as you want, but I get the feeling these guys would always be there waiting for you, like extras from an animated David Lynch feature.
Some endings you just can’t shake, no matter how cool your ride is…
6. TRAWL THE PAST LOOKING FOR SECRETS, COOL TOYS & NEW WAYS TO LIVE!!!!!!
Where is this going then? What sort of ending are The Shadow Men pointing towards? Well… to be honest I’m not entirely sure! Right now, The Bulletproof Coffin feels like the warped cousin of Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s gloriously optimistic Flex Mentallo. I don’t know if Steve Naeman is becoming a nightmare in order to live his dreams, or living his dreams and becoming a nightmare, but there’s a sickness at the heart of this comic that’s impossible to ignore.
For one thing, has anyone noticed that half of the Golden Nugget comics that Steve’s read so far revolve around violence towards women? I’m thinking of that Shield of Justice strip, in which Mona is both raped by two back-alley lurkers and then strangled by her boyfriend, and while the guy who bumps into The Unforgiving Eye in issue #1 is guilty of all manner of crimes, it’s an act of misogynistic cruelty that seals his fate:
This could just be a bit of on-the-nose genre commentary, but it feels particularly pointed given that Steve’s so obviously resentful of his wife Samantha, who he’s just seen letting the Shadow Men into his house…
‘Let the punishment fit the crime?‘ Shit, what if the punishment is the crime? Reading Steve’s monologue at the start of issue #3, I feel like that’s what’s really going on here:
The throb of The Coffin’s Motor is as familiar as the sound of my own breathing. I settle into the pilot’s seat and find that I know instinctively how to operate the controls, as if I’ve been doing it all my life.
There was a blurb that ran on the contents page of the Coffin Fly’s comics. How did it go?
“Doomed to a life of unimaginable solitude! A creature who less than human, yet also so much more–”
Heh, “less than human”, “unimaginable solitude” - this is a pretty masochistic fantasy, isn’t it? If it didn’t look so good, you’d struggle to find the appeal.
One last tangent to see us on our way: If, as Patrick Meaney’s Talking With Gods suggests, Grant Morrison’s comics add up to a fictionalised account of his life, then Steve Newman makes for an interesting counterpoint. The fact that Steve’s a two-dimensional character shouldn’t be held against him here, since both Morrison’s work and Patrick’s documentary are heavily concerned with the possibility of bringing fictional concepts over into the real world.
While Steve might not write the comics, he definitely lives them, though whether he’s finding these resonances in the comics or imposing them on the outside world remains to be seen. It’s quite easy to do this with comics, to build them into your life until you get to the point that you’ve made your own Bulletproof Coffin, no cutouts required! Where’s it going to take you? Who knows! The wheels keep on spinning, the chains keep on raking through the shit, churning up new trinkets, cool toys, and maybe some more good comics if you’re lucky. You (I? We? Steve? Who am I really talking about here?) keep hoping that you’re going to dredge up something profound, but in this arid, zombie-filled landscape that seems unlikely. Maybe you think that you can trust in the people who make these comics to write you a better future, but most probably you’re just glad to be enjoying the journey, and hey, that’s fair – it’s certainly where I am with this thing.
But is that enough?
Well… despite Jack’s admonitions, the questions won’t stop coming, and with them the anticipation of answers. Maybe that’s the real cruelty at the heart of The Bulletproof Coffin – the fact that it knows it’s just stringing us along, giving us just enough of what we need to keep us coming back, and what’s more that it lets us in on this, its creators safe in the knowledge that it will only make us more curious…
For all I know, the next two issues of this series could render everything I’ve written here painfully stupid, but you know what? I like it that way, because it gives me something to look forward to. And so it occurs to me that it’s hope that powers this fucked up machine after all. The kind of insignificant hope that only a numpty like me could get invested in, perhaps, but also the kind that’s easily excited by three simple words:
Well, shit – if it’s good enough for Superman, right? And so we keep doing this, smashing words and pictures together, be it on the page or in our brain, just hoping that everything well get stranger/funnier/more revelatory, in the next episode…