04 June 2011

Review: The Bulletproof Coffin by David Hine and Shaky Kane

The Bulletproof Coffin - David Hine (w) Shaky Kane(a)
Image Comics, $17.99, ISBN: 978-1-60706-368-1

Back in the 90s, Alan Moore stewarded a line of comics for Image called 1963, which took a snide look at Marvel heroes of the silver age and their alliteration-prone writer.  It was charming, irreverent, and fun but, sadly, never finished (in part due to Jim Lee’s sabbatical from comics art, and also due to Moore’s falling out with…well, everyone).  While Shaky Kane and David Hine share some of the pedigree of Affable Al and his collaborators (works for 2000 A.D., Marvel, and DC) they don’t carry quite the same gravitas.  That could be about to change.  The Bulletproof Coffin is very much a spiritual successor to the 1963 line, one that takes its conceit a stage further, adds a dash of Philip K. Dick, some essence of Brendan McCarthy and results in some fantastically layered meta-comics.

Much in the same way as Smilin’ Stan fictionalized himself in the Bullpen Bulletins, so too do Kane and Hine become both fictional and actual authors of The Bulletproof Coffin.  “Kane and Hine” are the famed creators behind Golden Nugget comics, who produced heroes like the Coffin Fly, Red Wraith and Ramona: Queen of the Stone Age (all recognizable Silver and Golden Age archetypes — the masked vigilante, the undead spirit and the jungle girl) until they were bought out by Big Two comics.  After that, they disappeared from the public eye.  Yet when Steve Newman (or is it Norman, or Nyman, or Noman?  His entropic surname is but one of the many games played within these pages) discovers new issues of Golden Nugget character comics, his life slowly devolves into a mess of paranoia and possible delusions.  His world becomes one where the comics are mirrors of real life, his family are spying on him for the government, and maybe — just maybe — he’s the real Coffin Fly and must save Ramona from a future filled with zombies.

It’s a beautiful set-up which approaches superheroes from a post-modern, but not necessarily cynical perspective.  Kane and Hine obviously have a great love for Simon, Kirby, Ditko, et al, so rather than send-ups, their Golden Nugget creations seem like actual footnotes from that era, with wacky powers and incredibly convoluted origins — those sparks of imagination that made the comics sing.  As part of the fabric of the story, excerpts from these tales are woven into the main storyline, giving us glimpses of “Kane and Hine’s” work.  They’re riddled with easter eggs from the real Kane and Hine’s career, as well as an integral part of story, each vignette bringing the comics world closer and closer to Steve’s delusions.  It never mocks his condition, but rather treats it as a sublime fugue state (think: Lost Highway or A Scanner Darkly) where we’re invited to share his horror and overpowering paranoia.

In the end, it’s the modern comics who find themselves at the end of The Bulletproof Coffin’s pointed gaze.  The corporatization and franchising of “work for hire” properties (which brings with it the entire baggage of Kirby and Joe Schuster’s fights over their creations with the real Big Two) are given a hilarious send-up in the comic’s denouement, resulting in bloodshed, carnage and Kane and Hine’s (fictional?) retirement.  For a comic published through Image, this is a brave move, especially with Kane’s spot-on parody of how Rob Liefeld would destroy the Golden Nugget characters.  The whole book screams with that same vital energy, as the two creators seem to scream with rage in every panel, clawing their way out of mediocrity and obscurity.

There must be a special synergy between the two, as never before has Hine’s writing been this clever or as pure.  Without Kane, too, the book would strike a very different tone — indeed, it’s his art that really sells the whole concept.  Resting somewhere between Geof Darrow and Brendan McCarthy, Kane’s work is dirty and corporeal while still maintaining an edge of the psychedelic.  The colours are a little too saturated, the lines too angular and fat to be realistic, yet the hyper-detailing in every panel can’t help but convince us that these odd characters all exist somewhere.  Even in the movement, there’s a sense of unease.  The characters don’t walk, they seem to shamble through their lives — it’s only the semi-fictional world of the comics that have kinetic energy and vitality.

The Bulletproof Coffin is a rare treasure among modern superhero comics, one that resists classification and easy analysis at every turn.  It’s one of those comics that renews your faith in what can be accomplished within the superhero framework, bringing intelligence and literacy while still remaining faithful to its heritage.  Feel this sucker!
-- Gavin Lees


We had a "Lester" doggie, too!

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