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King City (trade paperback) by Brandon Graham (2012) 424 p.
I’m not a big comics reader – for me it was always something associated with superheroes, which I can’t abide – but it’s something I’d like to get into more. I heard about King City ages and ages ago, but only recently saw that it was published as a collected volume, and figured now was the time.
King City is quite obviously a story that doesn’t take itself too seriously; in fact, Graham mentions in the afterword that he started drawing it as an escape from unenjoyable paid jobs in the industry. It takes place in the titular King City, a bizarre and fascinating metropolis of indeterminate location where all manner of people, monsters and aliens make their home. The main character, Joe, is a “cat master” – a spy trained in the art of using a cat which he injects with syringes that can transform it into anything from a telescope to a defibrillator to a deadly weapon.
Yes, it’s that kind of story – but Graham achieves the necessary balance between not taking it too seriously, and not taking it seriously enough. There are poignant relationships and important moments here, and it never just rolls away down the slope as a gigantic oddball joke. The crux of that is the relationship between Joe and his ex-girlfriend, so that even while they’re battling unleashed demons or rescuing her new boyfriend from a secret medical facility, Joe’s reflecting on how he feels about her. It (loosely) reminded me of Dicebox, in that the characters are strolling through amazing landscapes without really being fazed by them – the inverse of most fantasy or science fiction. King City might technically be about a cat master and his allies fighting against a deadly threat to mankind, but it feels like a much more familiar story: being a twenty-something deadbeat hanging out with your friends and eating takeout food, watching TV, drinking beer, and simply enjoying life in the endlessly entertaining mess that the streets of any great big city are. It’s awesome.
And the city itself truly is the drawcard here. Apparently Graham was requested by his publisher to change the original title from Catmaster to King City, and I’m on the publisher’s side there. Like China Mieville or William Gibson, Graham is a writer who loves the concept of the city, of the compost layer of history, of thousands of people – thousands of stories – going about their lives every single day. (It’s a concept I’m equally fascinated by.) A city is more than the sum of its parts, and with his marvellous style of drawing – which crams in as many details, side-jokes, snatches of graffitti, strange characters, billboards, and overheard conversations as possible – Graham creates a living, breathing city that’s as much of a character as Joe the Cat Master is.
There’s so much of this town that I never think about. All this city going on all at once. You can spend forever in a place like this and still see hundreds of new faces every day. Face. Face. Face. All of everyone piled up on each other. I wonder how much is going on in all those windows.
Alan Moore mentioned on HARDtalk the other day that the most interesting stuff in any industry, but especially in comics, is usually going on at the margins. King City is a perfect example of one of those indie gems, a fun and creative story spun by a struggling writer who has deservedly found success.
My short story “Nullus” has been published in the inaugural edition of SQ Mag. You can read it online for free here. Yes, they did get my first name wrong, but that’s all part and parcel of the glorious toboggan ride of being a young writer!
The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt (2011) 325 p.
The Western seems to be enjoying a revival in the last few years, at least as far as my personal tastes are concerned. Of the top ten films in my Best of the 00′s list, one is a classic Western (The Proposition) one is a modern Western (No Country For Old Men) and one is a sort-of Western (There Will Be Blood). Had I seen The Assassination of Jesse James before I compiled that list, it would have placed very high. True Grit was awesome. Deadwood is one of the most well-regarded TV series of recent years. I’m currently playing Red Dead Redemption, one of the best video games I’ve come across in a while. Last year’s Vogel Award was won by The Roving Party, an Australian Western. Westerns Westerns everywhere. Westward ho!
They have changed a lot, of course, since the chiselled-jaw John Wayne films of the 50’s and 60’s, which I occasionally catch on daytime television. Those were stories about man triumphing over nature, about man surviving against the wilderness and the natives, about man being manly. These days Westerns are generally used to explore the human psyche, particularly its capacity for violence.
In this sense, The Sisters Brothers is very much in line with other recent Westerns. Where it differs is in its quirkiness. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it “hilarious,” as some reviewers have, but it’s certainly “darkly comic” and “off-beat,” to use other favoured terms. As an example, in the opening sentence Eli casually mentions that he and his brother have new horses, as their previous ones were “immolated.” But – like True Grit, another funny Western – it has a serious side as well.
The novel follows the titular Sisters brothers, hired killers employed by “The Commodore” in 1851 Oregon, on a mission to find and kill a California gold prospector named (in the delightfully ridiculous 19th century style) Hermann Kermit Warm. Along the trail to San Francisco they meet many strange and amusing characters, from starving children to weeping cowboys to prostitute accountants, and these encounters serve to remind Eli of other lives he could be living. He is the less dominant member of the partnership, and is not particularly wedded to life as an assassin. Eli narrates the novel with a mixture of wistfulness and resignation; when they abandon a child to his fate in the wilderness, he thinks “Here is another miserable mental image I will have to catalog and make room for.” His character arc follows his desire to leave this life of killing, matching it against his unwillingness to leave his brother’s side.
This a unique novel, and despite the strangeness of it all, DeWitt manages to give Eli a pitch-perfect voice. He is a confident and gifted writer. Of all the Booker nominees I’ve read, The Sisters Brothers is second only to Jamrach’s Menagerie as my favourite of them.
I was surprised when this made the shortlist, and prior to reading it I doubted it had a shot. A comic Western? But this year’s judges have shown that they are free of prejudice and more than happy to embrace the unusual, and so I believe The Sisters Brothers is a serious contender. I would still describe it as “an unusual choice” if it won, but wouldn’t be massively surprised.