That Old Dream That Moves

A few notes about The Bulletproof Coffin: Disinterred by Shaky Kane and David Hine, with a special emphasis on the issues 3 and 4. SPOILERS: yup. 

(Originally to have been posted a proper amount of days before issue five’s release. I beg your indulgence, obv.)*

One of the better moments in the past few months of serialized comics occurs a few pages into The Bulletproof Coffin: Disinterred #3. Below is its first image, a splash page with a boy at its center, our vision angled down the better to see him as he is at this moment: in his room, surrounded by his toys, objects of which he is the absolute master. He’s playing the way you tend to play, grabbing at all the items in the box, staging crossover events between Transformers and Power Rangers against a Hot Wheels backdrop, with green army men as innocent bystanders; these are no doubt dated points of reference – sorry kids! – but you get the principle. What matters is the intensity of it all, which we can see in the boy’s gaze, maybe the most ferocious look you’ll see on a face in comics this year. Playing is not fucking around, not when you’re so engulfed – this may be his dominion, but he’s also nearly trapped, at least by the composition; we just need the black bar on that Radio Flyer wagon to fall forward and we’d have a complete enclosure on display.

Following this is a double splash page extravaganza, impossible to scan by the meager bits of tech I have readily at hand; here’s a link, sans dialogue (UNFORGIVING EYE: “Curse this rush hour traffic! We can’t let anything stand in our path! ACTIVATE TURBO-DRIVE!”). Why bother with any anecdotal visual analysis here? We can point out the spatial contrast between the two images, the earlier picture’s sense of claustrophobia, a feel now retroactively conferred onto its relatively smaller size, with panel borders akin to prison bars – everything aligning to hem the image in, all thanks to the release embodied by the two pages following. Its premise is self-explanatory – the boy’s imagination coming alive for our eyes, plowing over every obstacle as the resident heroes of The Bulletproof Coffin tend to, figures less tethered to any ideal of heroism than forces of will which move through an environment fitted to suit, an environment which can only join us as we look on in wonder. The issue is composed mainly of this – the boy playing and his actions then seen in Jolly Jack and Smilin’ Stan style; this is the most emblematic instance, as you may have guessed from the proportions allotted each image and its rhythmic one-two punch – three pages devoted to a single gesture.

The sequence becomes even more interesting when you realize it’s more than just an especially neat sugar rush, place it in the wider context of the series thus far. The Adventures of Coffin Fly And The Unforgiving Eye portrayed in the boy’s playtime reverie is the reenactment/continuation/possible genesis of the opening scene of the first issue of Disinterred – Unforgiving Eye calling Coffin Fly back from every superhero’s required annual two week vacation period – aka Death – because evil’s afoot, Mister, no time to explain! This peculiar phenomenon, the whims of a child guiding or being guided by another scenario, gets some explanation: an x-factor object among the boy’s play things, a golden bejeweled zippo – possible bearer of some unknown, unearthly power – given to the boy by his uncle. The situation escalates, as you’d expect from a child playing with fire, into grim Twilight Zone-ish implications by issue’s end, the final page closing with a question mark before a fuse is lit.

But the friction generated by those first two images, two distinct worlds apparently one, implies some instability, enough leeway for we witnesses to hesitate before reducing it all to pop morality play – besides there are three issues after this. We can consider how the boy got the lighter, his uncle, a homicide detective seen in the first issue investigating a series of murders, its own contained bit of intricacy – headless victims, a baroque pattern of abstruse clues, a set of linked strange objects found at each scene of the crime (the aforementioned lighter among them), a trap, a betrayal – which reaches its denouement thanks to the discovery of another headless body, a corpse which may be that of Steve Newman (or Neuman or Norman or Nayman or Noman), the protagonist of the first Bulletproof Coffin series, or the boy himself, now a grown-up survivor of an apocalypse he, via playing too rough with his toys, may have brought about. His death has no part in the machinations of the invisible architect of crime bedeviling the detective but is rather a direct effect of that first scene – you probably shouldn’t spook a newly reborn superhero unless you want a laser in the face.

Which is to say that his fate was overseen by another set of architects, out of view but obvious – Kane and Hine – a death which forms another pattern, one seen only in part and ready to reveal by series end – depending on its identity – either a kiss-off to that first series or our first glimpse of the vast loop which frames this one. Or maybe we can lay the blame back where we began this essay – with the boy, his hand guiding the aim of his Coffin Fly action figure and promptly burning the head off a nearby Ken doll with his awesome new lighter, a child’s tossed off bit of destruction which creates itself in the long chain of consequences and gives the series its own McGuffin, the corpse of the unknown man at the center of every narrative web.

Despite all the dots connected, the disparity between the two images remains – you can make the cognitive leap between the candy-colored collateral damage and the boy making the best of bland suburbia or you can just survey to your content, pondering the distance between the two, or, changing the metaphor, groove to their dissonance. As well you may, because this is the dominant tone of these stories, eagerly running roughshod over psychological realism and logic, too quick to take notice of its casual disjunctions of time and tone (“How, in issues two and three, is the lighter at two different sightings of the same lunar flare?” and various et ceteras in this mold), fueled by a potent mish-mash of comics and culture past; nostalgia with little use for preciousness, keyed not toward fidelity but fixation.

On its surface level, the latest iteration of The Bulletproof Coffin is a sectioning off of a nice chunk of the popular public past – the late fifties/early sixties – into a private playground upon which all the icons of the age – those damn inescapable superheroes, the beatnik, the commie, the astronaut, the detective – are let loose; within that continuum, the first sequence gains even more resonance, as a casual intermingling of its two probable extremes: suburbia and the superhero. This approach isn’t too unusual in comics (Mike Allred, anything entitled The New Frontier) but the airtight insularity, the private logic which gives the series the sense of a distant transmission from space, an alien’s fond pastiche of our Earth genres, suggests Guy Maddin as a more proper point of comparison.

There’s a distance to the proceedings, the content flattened out but not too weighed down by an implicit iconography, as you’d expect from Kane, his style honed on quotation marks and direct statements, fully at home with single self-sufficient images, with no use for spontatneity and naturalism – you’d be hardpressed to label any moment or item incidental, leaving you a lot like that detective, seeing every detail as a bit of overt or buried significance. As Jog points out, that boy makes a good surrogate for Kane’s sense of composition, all stiff figures bearing the stamp of Lord Kirby, so bright and blocky that all shadow should slide off (unless there to provide an outsized melodramatic silhouette against their backdrop) – the only moments which feel like deliberate fakery in this very artificial narrative are when they’re tinted so. Only rarely do the images come with a unified sense of space, typically when the doings veer into full-on superhero THRILLPOWER (ala our masked men beating the traffic), the character and their surroundings locked in the same grid; more often, there’s a disconnect, with the figures popping way out against an innocuous/indistinct plane or just plain cut/pasted onto a different texture. The coziness of the atmosphere, Kane’s assured sense of every panel as a limited set of well-defined variable elements, gives the sense that to wander into the environment just beyond any panel border is to risk encountering the void.

It adds up to a fever dream of Pop; underground connections and echoes, rumors, an unstable time line broken and reattached, bifurcating – continuity with less of an emphasis on cause and effect and more intent upon weaving a web of interconnections between images, moments. You don’t need to get mired in the exposition, the de facto gamesmanship and recontextualization – you can read the overly elaborate scenarios as simple extrapolations of a basic recurring image: a figure surrounded by his precious relics, in communion with them.

And where else could the sensibilities of Shaky Kane and David Hine converge –  Kane’s Monster Truck and its eternal return to an arid internal landscape colonized, invaded by pop culture, the harsh wind of obsession kicking up a storm, and Hine’s Strange Embrace, with its lone fetishist in thrall to his exotic artifacts, a scene with a crime at its center sadder, more basic, and more brutal than any ornate private perversion – but in the notion of a trap built into all the bits of ephemera ubiquitous throughout the series: toys, memorabilia, every commonplace of the collector? And so the action figures, AA-battery powered ray guns, everything you wander through at your local retailer when you pick up the latest Daredevil, and, most of all, those strange fucked-up comics, assume the status of totems, fetishes, nexuses of obsession. These items aren’t simply food for nostalgia’s bottomless appetite (placing the series’ time frame into one receding into myth may be a way of forestalling nostalgia, acknowledging it but not allowing it to override the narrative), but potent in of themselves, talismans, catalysts for something like a rite of transformation, never underlined but nonetheless present. Running further with these implications, we might interpret the loops and whorls which make up the bulk of of the story, all its mysteries, as aspects of the mystery, the revelation which is experienced rather than spoken.

It’s an idea at the edges of the first Bulletproof Coffin – subsumed into that series’ preoccupations with plot and commentary, but fully present on the covers, the front cover inviting you in with an image of a character or characters (typically carrying a gun) amidst a mess of this potent detritus and the back a faux advertisement for such (the cover for issue five is close to a direct statement for those with eyes to see) – and in full bloom in Disinterred. It’s seen in first image of the series: the Unknown Fan guided by an Unforgiving Eye flashlight, an authentic replica British Army compass and a Swiss Army Knife toward “a land fit for heroes” and his doom, and continuing on, to that detective entranced by his collection of crime scene talismans, the final stepping stones to making his superhero fantasies hard truth, and, of course, that boy, wide-eyed and triumphant before his toys, and many another instance… these scenes are The Bulletproof Coffin’s home and everything which unfurls from them commentary, footnotes.

So far, Disinterred is a superior sequel, a plunge straight into the dream where the first series was compelled to kowtow to something like a reality principle, all its strange doings mediated by everyman Steve Noman. It’s fundamental flaw is that of many fair-to-decent superhero comics: subjugating its ideas to a plot which proves too neat, too pat, so the experience becomes something like a plain day at the zoo, the lions, tigers, and bears too easily cowed by their cages. Nothing quite matches the immersion into another world found in its first issue, Steve Norman breathing in a comic which shouldn’t exist like a former user returned to his drug of choice. The rest is fine, each issue following a similar formula, Steve Neuman parsing these samizdat texts from the Golden Nugget comics line for clues to find their fabled creators “David Hine” and “Shaky Kane”, a story which comes a few more times within sight of its first issue summit before resolving itself into an industry satire punchline. It seems facile to say that Disinterred enters the apocryhpal comics at the center of that series and never leaves, but, dammit, it’s true; beyond all the clever curlicues, its fundamental joy is that of a frenzy of images run amok, just like you like it.

There’s no telling whether an apocalyptic fade to white awaits us at the end of this story, as it did in the earlier tale. But the apocalypse isn’t forever, at least not in superhero comics, which tend to take their cue from their progenitor, Superman, the proof that one planet’s destruction can bear the strangest fruit of all. There’s always another one around the corner, as we saw in Disinterred’s third issue, which left us with only a single question mark to save us as one boy’s high spirits seemed ready to plunge the world once more into the fires of armageddon.

That question mark does its job well, resounding in all its forms – Who? What? Where? How? Why? – into the fourth issue. It is, undeniably (and nothing more than, if you so desire), an explosion of images, 84 in total and title, (along with a graceful four page coda, a concession to its serialized nature: four of those images tied in a neat bow by a bit of moody and wistful narration). Its creation goes as so: Kane drew, according to his id and/or gut, eighty-four single images (about twenty more than you’ll find in Monster Truck, making this a nice bang-for-your-buck affair), some discrete and random and others very much connected, which Hine then wrote captions and dialogue for, reframing images, elaborating on motifs, and inventing/augmenting narratives at his whim. The images were than handed over to a select group of cohorts, who each reshuffled the images at random, this being the final sequential order (four to a page) sent to Image for publication purposes.

It’s helpful to state this in full because it isn’t the probable end point, as you may have gathered from the creator’s allowing the winds of circumstance to shake up their process – they oblige (implore) you to read the issue in a random order, skipping from image to image “…until you achieve a state of enlightenment”. Should you find your way to nirvana hindered, it helps to know that, as advised by series editor Destroyovski**, you can take the process further, cut the comic up into its individual components, shift the pictures at your will, toss them onto the floor and read them like entrails.

While we can latch onto the obvious points of reference for this narrative approach – Burroughs and Brion Gysin (openly acknowledged all throughout), Adrian Veidt (Before Watchmen: Ozymandias will surely bear this same gimmick at some point), etc. – what’s most appealing to me is how inevitable it seems when looking at The Bulletproof Coffin project as a whole: the neat, and perhaps unintended, progression from a first reasonably coherent and self-contained series, to the series following – each issue separate but reflecting off each other in a blur – and culminating here, as The Bulletproof Coffin becomes what it seemingly always wished to be: a system of scenes and images, breeding uncontrollably, repeating, mutating.

It’s an end point which seems apt given how the issue extends the narrative I’ve concerned myself with mainly in this piece. Specifally, we’re afforded another glimpse of that boy, this time clinging to his toys as he stand in the rubble of catastrophe, and from there its scope expands: into prehistory, with a possible long game played across millenia by aliens, involving glowing yellow monolithic meteors crashing into Earth in a 2001 homage, its substance compelling primitive men to worship, sacrifice, and murder for it, and later, presumably, to haunt that detective, provide that boy with his lighter, and lend its name to the Golden Nugget comic company, home of Coffin Fly, The Unforgiving Eye, The Red Wraith, and all the rest of your favorite heroes. And so the series reframes its dream history as a history of dreams corrupted from the onset, an infection coloring reality, with much of what we’ve seen as symptoms – note the series’ patron saint, Burroughs, and, hell, all the cut-up jollies of this issue – of a virus of images.

Beyond that clear trail of narrative breadcrumbs, this tidy little interpretation – the rough equivalent of Burrough’s explanation of Naked Lunch as “…a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork” – is a fertile associative pathway through these pictures, should you choose to follow it. That quote may serve as actual inspiration  for one specific image here (look for the lollipop), but you’re more likely to find “seeing” as a literal act a more common theme, always accompanied by revelation in the abstract (note the Psycho – or Psycho by way of Blue Velvet – nod on the first page). And, appropriate to the issue’s interactive spirit, you get to play that part, channel your inner Rowdy Roddy Piper and directly uncover what is hidden, the falsehood leading to the truth, or vice-versa.

But we needn’t limit ourselves – everything’s equal when you find yourself in a labyrinth without a center. There’s more here, other stories, Tales From The Bulletproof Coffin which will never be fully told (given that the series is two issues and a standalone special before its race is run), footnotes, side moves, and gleeful contradictions of what we’ve seen already, more human remains in a graveyard, an alternate history of Russian space travel, “Shaky Kane” in formaldehyde and the sad fate of poor old compromised “David Hine”.

And, as you’d expect, it slips beyond these borders and quotation marks, pointing outward to something like the real, whatever that is. Kane’s pastiche of Lichtenstein’s “The Exhausted Soldiers” is worth a pause: Kane acknowledging his earlier work, strips which partook of a Pop Art instinct thankfully divorced from any surrounding frame of hierarchy or condescension, with a deftness of commentary and a playful sense of quotation which effectively made them detournaments of themselves? Or a presentation of the cultural moment when simple pulp pleasure became divorced from itself? Likewise, “Shaky’s Dilemma”, another free floater, this one depicting Kane as he appears when he displaces air, nifty Warhol do and all, adrift amidst the infinite Krackling Kirby Kosmos on a stray bit of room, armed only with a pencil, a longbox of comics, and a portrait of Frankenstein as he ponders whether to relinquish his lonely island for the vast expanse before him; to leave his treasure behind and find either an endless realm of possibility or the inky depths of the void?

Stepping officially outside any context of narrative or process, we might consider this wondrous little object a requiem for the classical floppy comic, at least in light of the Big Two letting all and sundry know they’ve got their eject buttons firmly in sight before the weight of so much paper sinks the regular ship of commerce. What finer way to commemorate these engines of four-color fury, among the simplest pleasures imaginable and soon to be reliant on actual engines, than to premise your work on its tactility, to lay the comic’s own destruction down as a necessity, the better for we readers to place ourselves in the gutters, now as wide as you care to make them – to navigate them at your will before the path laid down becomes a strict imperative?

So what is The Bulletproof Coffin, Disinterred or otherwise? I clearly have no idea. An inoculation treatment for we remaining consumers helpless before the Wednesday week? A cheerful bit of fucking-around, more ambitious than most? A dance before the slow motion self-immolation of the genre? All or none of the above? You decide – whatever point I had, I’m certain it’s been made. This maze has worn me out, making me good and tender for whatever minotaur lurks in these endless hallways.

The only comfort I have is that, right now, suspended as we are between this issue – this blatant flurry of images which ends where we began, with that boy having made a mess with his toys – and the next, we can make these judgments, proclaim these connections. Until he picks them up and decides to play again.

*This essay, posted the day after Disinterred #5 is released: D.O.A.!

Possible reasons this piece is the newest enlistee in The Hateful Dead:

  1. A computer gone wonky, currently being repaired.
  2. The 1500 or so words I wrote on Flex Mentallo relative to the first Coffin series (featuring a nifty Greil Marcus quote and pointed commentary on the Gary Friedrich affair – look out pundits!) that I continually reworked and redrafted until I simply realized they were unnecessary.
  3. General lassitude.
  4. Et cetera.

For the sake of balance and not completely copping out, there’ll be a review of issue 5 soon, probably next week but definitely after tomorrow (when I’ll have picked up and read the damn thing), replete with a list of the numerous errors of presumption I’ve made with this now-official 3800 (and nearly 5300) words of dead weight, along with the names of which saints’ statues whose feet I’ve kissed in atonement for whatever sin I’ve committed by posting this essay in something like bad faith (I think).

** Destroyovski is a good example of the distinctions between the two iterations of the Coffin: an unseen figure at the margins of the first series, a Russian oligarch, a possible pseudonym for Kane, a supplier of epigrams, someone or no one. He emerges in the second as the editor listed in the inside front cover, below Kane and Hine, contributing terrifically melodramatic editorials in the backmatter, his portrait a close-up of a white man with a black fedora and coat, his face obscured by a green apple in homage to Magritte. You can read his essay on the sexxxy debut of Catwoman in DC’s nu52 here.

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