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Comics Works: The Keys to KING CITY

Brandon Graham’s King City is a futuristic, highly corporatized ethnic jumble of a metropolis, lined with hidden passageways and shaded by the pall of dark magic. It’s also a meeting place for hip-hop wordplay, the punkish stance of graffiti culture, and the storytelling sensibilities of ligne claire Eurocomics and Japanese manga. The comics series, collected in its entirety by Image last spring, tracks the exploits of a few of the city’s residents, including Joe, a thief, warrior, and pet owner. King City was a cult hit upon its initial release, and both the cult and Graham’s profile are poised to grow in years to come.

It’s possible to overstate the newness or distinctiveness of Graham’s work. A determined reader could spend a lot of time playing Spot the Influence across King City’s panels, and Graham has contemporaries in artists such as James Stokoe, Bryan Lee O’Malley and Becky Cloonan—other youngish comics talents who walk easily between genres. And yet books such as King City are still rare enough stuff—not of the Marvel/DC superhero tradition, nor of the indie comics naturalism of Dan Clowes and Chester Brown, nor of the art school primitivism of the Kramer’s Ergot scene. Even if Graham’s work isn’t fully-formed-from-out-of-the-ether new, it reads like the future, and that’s what counts.

I’ll look at downtown skyscrapers a lot and just try to figure out what goes on in all the different windows. –Brandon Graham, interview with The Comics Journal, 2011

King City is striking for Graham’s habit of pointing at everything, whenever possible. Like any writer-about-cities worth reading, he’s driven to suggest the countless other stories that could (and sometimes do) taper off from the work’s main narrative threads. He accomplishes this with a relentless attention to visual detail.

Every turned corner in King City brings more visual gags and throwaway characters, graffiti scribbling, strange vending machines and corporate logos. Graham takes care of much of his worldbuilding with this obsessive detailing—readers get as much as they need and no more. Within the comic’s first couple entries, we know that Graham’s lead character Joe is a “cat master” who can accomplish seemingly anything with his trained cat and an array of injectable chemical cocktails; that Joe’s friend Pete does odd jobs for bad people, including sex trafficking; and that an ancient evil is slowly regaining power inside King City. But much of what readers discover about the city comes to us by lingering over Graham’s ornate layouts. He takes readers through street after street, and our impressions of the city quickly pile up. Graham’s line, meanwhile, helps the whole thing cohere into a whole—his consistency matches his attention to detail. It’s good storytelling and great comics.

Graham’s Easter-egging of his pages reaches its height in the panels that he crowds with directional arrows and sidebars, transforming scenes into diagrams (and usually without losing the story’s flow, which is impressive in and of itself). One two-page spread, an overhead view of several King City blocks, takes on the appearance of a board game. Graham includes just enough of these diagram pages for readers not to tire of them, and in these moments the series is arguably at its most fun and imaginative.

So much of my ideas about comic books, my ideas about the culture of comic books were spawned from the ideology of ’90s hip-hop and ’90s rap. … My dialogue’s incredibly rap influenced. Because … puns! –Brandon Graham, TCJ interview

Graham also goes out of his way during each chapter of King City to include as much wordplay as possible. Turning to a few pages at random, I found the following: “I’m sorry I was short with you before. I’m only five feet five” (Joe’s girlfriend); “I cat-o-flauge myself” (Joe with a cat on his head); “Berry’d Alive” (the tagline on box of strawberries); “Herbal in Your Court Tea,” (brand of tea); “Here There Be Drag Queens” (location on a map); “Billy the Kidney” (name of a cat’s kidney); “100 Years of Solid Dude” (name of a game in the book’s backmatter).

These are throwaway gags, mostly—Graham is not out to create a web of lexical-cultural associations or a running commentary on Joe’s story—which is part of their charm. (And not always great gags either—also part of their charm.) And yet Graham’s compulsive punning does amount to something more than a series of isolated jokes. Throughout King City, he trades the page-by-page diegetic believability of the city’s various business or products—Herbal in Your Court?—for something more immediate. The run of puns generates a hum, a noisy frisson, that substitutes in its way for a city’s car horns and sidewalk chatter. King City is immersive by way of its busyness.

Despite Graham’s attention to detail, it’s not as if his pages are cramped beyond readability. He uses negative space to let a joke breathe or to underscore the mundanity of a situation. King City’s rare fight scenes, meanwhile, have the snap and elasticity of good manga, as well as an attention to pacing and to how one action follows another. Some of these things probably sound like givens, but a reader wouldn’t know it by looking at many Big Two titles, or some other Image books for that matter. (Some people might object here that comparing Graham’s book to a Marvel/DC product is pointless, but there are a lot of omnivorous comics readers out there, and on occasion something great still comes out of corporate superhero comics.)

Most importantly, though: as with Graham’s diagrams and cityscapes, a reader gathers from one of his action sequences that Graham loves to draw, with the vicarious pleasure that attends the inference. (The same is true of the work of Graham’s friend and contemporary James Stokoe, whose crass and wild fantasy serial Orc Stain is one of the most detail-rich comics of the last several years.) As with Graham’s frequent puns, King City’s fight scenes read like the products of an obsessive creator having the time of his life, but here, in the visual realm, Graham’s at the height of his craft too.

There’s a page in the back where I just draw every character in the same room, hanging out and watching TV. I feel a little weird about it, but that’s my fan fiction page where they’re all happy and they’re all friends now. So, I worry that I’d get a little like that if I did more of it, so I had to take some of the characters out and try to do a little autobiography again, and treat it that where I am in my life is where the characters are in their life. –Brandon Graham, interview with Bleeding Cool, 2012

By design, Graham’s lead character Joe does not really undergo the sort of hero’s journey common to genre fic. Graham vocally prizes the in-between moments in genre stories:

There’s this great Dave Sim quote where he talks about, “How many fistfights does the average person get into in their life?” He said that if you’re not doing conversations between two normal people, then you’re missing the point about being human and making art. I really like that idea. It makes me feel better when I think to myself, “Nothing’s happening in this comic!” -the Bleeding Cool interview

–and the narrative of King City, inasmuch as it exists, feels totally unforced. For better or for worse.

In lacking traditional character growth, King City also fails to provide some of the readerly pleasures that attend it, such as an investment in the story’s characters. The comic is a serial and not a collection of discrete, self-contained episodes, and yet King City works best as a form of drop-in entertainment than. A reader can visit Joe and his friends after weeks or months elsewhere without needing a memory jog. And several days at least did go by between reads as I made my way through the collected King City. It’s the odd genre work that’s immersive while allowing for limited interest in character or what happens next. (Tom Spurgeon of The Comics Reporter recently described King City as “a mini-symphony of minor-key narrative choices,” an inspired description, a corollary of which is that the story lacks the grace notes of truly unique, intimate character moments.)

Graham’s many scenes of Joe, his cat, and Pete lounging around are theoretically the type that provide for revealing interactions, non-fist-fight-type exchanges, but Joe reads as a blank slate through the end of the book. It’s a challenge to care what he does next or where he goes. The story’s leisurely pace, meanwhile—in some respects part of King City’s appeal—does little to push strong character moments forward. So thank goodness again for Graham’s inventive layouts and obsessively detailed street-and-crowd scenes.

I think porn comics were the perfect training ground for me because I was allowed to do anything as long as it had the sex in it. –Brandon Graham, Bleeding Cool interview

Getting it out of the way: King City is male gaze-y as fuck. In the various reviews and blog posts I’ve read about Graham and the work, comics writers have largely avoided leveling this criticism at him, perhaps because any reader aware of Graham’s background in adult comics isn’t going to be surprised by his drawings of women with bowling ball butts. Graham’s also frank and unapologetic about his past in illustrated porn (which is not to say he should be otherwise)—he owns his history. The story of Joe and his friends is an outgrown of adult comics as much as it is, say, a sci-fi story—Graham broke away from porn and into King City. And yet.

The problem of women in King City is different than the women problems that Marvel or DC has. Graham is cartooning for adults rather than placing lazily photoreferenced shots of porn stars in stories about characters created for children. The sexual charge of Graham’s work is not a problem in and of itself. But there’s little to Graham’s female characters beyond their pronounced curves—they’re fantastically proportioned and thinly conceived.

Joe’s ex-girlfriend Anna figures in his plot thread as the one who got away. She spends most of the pages devoted to her worrying about her current boyfriend. Beebay is Joe’s hookup partner and the head of a terrorist cell, and although readers get to follow her effort to recruit Joe, they don’t get to watch her in action. Pete’s subplot, meanwhile, finds him working up the courage to rescue the exotic and largely silent alien mermaid he helped shuttle into sex slavery. Even after a female cat master shows up, women in King City don’t really get to do anything interesting on-panel. And the weak characterization that runs through Graham’s comic becomes problematic rather than merely disappointing. The collected King City is a genuinely original work, crawling with evidence that Graham is an artist to watch, and for that matter the best comics bargain of the year. It also disappoints in ways that are much too familiar. Take notice, but keep your expectations in check.

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