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.

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