Okay, so the rundown is as follows: This is a well-written graphic novel about a man and his amazing multi-purpose cat as they attempt to figure out what's going on in the titular city. The story hovers around surreal urban science fiction-fantasy with the usual Lovecraftian overtones, with some Asian influences tossed in for good measure. Where it shines is the writing, plotting, art, and world design, creating an insane journey through a megalopolis full of freelancers, spies, creepy corporate executives, and aliens. Brandon Graham clearly knows what he's doing, and I'd like to read more of his own work, as someone with this much of a handle on things is clearly worth a read.
The bad comes in when the story ends on an anticlimax, and some of the swearing gets to be a bit much. But both of these are minor nitpicks in a very awesome work, and it deserves your attention, whether you're a graphic novel fan, or just a fan of some very weird, sort of absurd work.
More, as always, below.
"The cat doesn't believe in the dark art of popsicle"
Cut to present day, and I finally find the well-hidden graphic novel section at my library. I was intrigued by a book I found there with red block letters spelling out "KING CITY". Being that it was a lot bigger and thicker than I thought it was, and I'd forgotten most of the preconceived notions I had about it (as well as much of the plot, except for it being about cats somehow), I checked it out on the spot and started reading it on the way home.
And it is brilliant.
It pulls off its plot with a certain nonchalance towards its own bizarre contents. Yes, this is a book where a man skateboarding down a hallway on a cat is the way it introduces itself, but it climbs to even greater heights of insanity while not once bothering to get self-conscious about what it is or what it's doing. King City is the way it is simply because it is that way, and nothing can possibly shake its conviction in its own plotline. And it is with this that the book succeeds.
King City starts with Joe, a Cat-Master, and his hyper-intelligent cat Earthling. Joe hires himself out as a kind of freelance spy for anyone who'll hire him, doing jobs with the help of Earthling. Earthling can take multiple forms (storage medium, gun, skateboard) and carry out multiple purposes with the help of injections of a drug called "cat juice". We first meet Joe and Earthling as they steal a key from a secure vault, only for Joe to be wounded during the getaway when a mysterious man in a black suit flicks a booger through Joe's shoulder with enough force to knock him off the top of the train he was using for his getaway. Joe survives and stumbles back into the titular King City, finds a spy hotel where he can bed down, and starts to get in contact with his friends in the city.
And things get even weirder.
The graphic novel, after this action-packed opening, switches gears somewhat. It becomes more about the day-to-day lives and adventures of Joe and Earthling, Joe's balaclava-clad inventor best friend Pete Taifighter, his ex-girlfriend Anna Greengables, and Anna's ex-military addict boyfriend Maximum Absolute. King City follows them as they go about their strange freelance gigs, eat weird food, try to kick the habit of a strange drug called Chalk. They do this against a backdrop of aliens, ninja academies, carnivorous businessmen, strange gangs, and secret societies. But as they try to simply go about their business, things start to get stranger and stranger. Pete falls in love with the water-breathing alien girl he's supposed to be transporting to a brothel. The key Joe stole may have unleashed armageddon. A gang called the Owls, led by a femme fatale named Beebay, is carrying out strange secret operations all over town. And in the end, the heroes may have to figure out what's going on before it's too late and King City heads for disaster.
I suppose what I like the most about King City is the world Brandon Graham created. King City is a rich and insane staging ground for the madness within, and every page is bursting with new details. It says something that a graphic novel this heavy leaves so many unanswered questions, and the plot summary being that tangled is not a mistake, nor an inability to pin the plot down to one thing or another. There's just so much going on, both in the city and in the plot, that it's impossible to catch absolutely everything that's going on, and the end of the book posits that King City isn't alone in weirdness, that there's an entire world of strange, twisted goings-on that occur just out of sight. Things like the farm where the Cat Masters train to use their symbiotic felines, for instance. Or the fact that there's even an entire sect of Cat Masters. Graham's grasp on the world is such that nothing seems particularly surprising, despite things that should make the reader at least a little confused.
This also ties into the plotting. King City's got an amazing pace to it, and the plot unfurls almost in abstract vignettes, each building on the last but its own self-contained story. The way it moves from character to character and shows how each character intersects with the others helps build a bigger plotline, and eventually when the city explodes (not completely a literal thing, not completely not), everything comes together nicely. It perhaps helps that the book was initially a twelve-issue serial published first by Tokyopop and then by Image Comics when Tokyopop ran into difficulties...and the episodic nature and serial escalation probably come from the format as much as anything else. But the nature of the plot is such that it develops the characters while keeping things just unpredictable and tied into the main plot enough that it never feels like a digression.
Finally, the art style is fantastic. The panels are filled with heavily detailed artwork reminiscient of graffiti and street art, which fits the gritty, surrealistic nature of the story well. The character designs are cartoonish, but stay consistent to the art style-- these look like people, and because they match their surroundings well, it never feels like they're overblown. The one exception would be the second-in-command of the Owls, a gargantuan woman-thing, but even then, she serves a purpose as muscle and her design says as much. The art style adds a lot to the feel of the book, and helps to give voice to the characters exceptionally well.
Special mention also goes to the writing-- the amount of wordplay and dialogue play is amazing, and Brandon Graham makes each line flow into the next, no matter how absurd. The puns are both groan-inducing and kind of clever (Check Anna's last name, for instance), the dialogue is snarky and the banter is sharp, and even when things are cryptic, they're actually kind of fun anyway.
However, there are issues. The book doesn't end so much as stop with an almighty thud. That's the big one-- after building up to a massive confrontation, things just kind of stop, and the ending trails off on an ambiguous note. While it kind of makes sense...by this point the story's moving away from the city anyway, after all, it still made me go "After all of that, this is it?" I suppose I'm just not a fan of the anticlimax.
Second, the language does get kind of gratuitous. It's fun, but I feel like I should mention it. There were times I wondered if "Fuck a shit sandwich" was really the best phrase to use, and while it fit the character, I just felt it was a little much.
But in the end, even these ills do the book more good than harm. King City is a trippy, somewhat nightmarish in places ride through a city where everything can and does happen. Buy this book. Or at least find some way to take it out of the library and give it a read. I may not recommend it to people who don't dig comic books and absurdism, but if you do, this is right up your alley. In fact, I'd even go so far as to say that your alley probably leads to King City.
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ALSO POSSIBLY UPCOMING:
- Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron by Daniel Clowes (Now that I've opened up open season on graphic novels, might as well do one of the best)
- Seed by Rob Ziegler
- Halting State by Charles Stross
- The Snow Queen by Joan D. Vinge
AND MANY OTHERS