December 14, 2009

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The King

Written by Rich Koslowski
Illustrated by Rich Koslowski
Top Shelf

If you are at all aware of American popular culture, then you know its love affair with Elvis Presley, a talented singer who ended up like so many performers of his day, dead after one too many excesses killed him via a heart attack.

Or did they?

From the ever-seedy sands of Las Vegas, rumors of Elvis' return from the dead (if he was ever dead to begin with!) abound, as a popular show features a man wearing a peculiar mask gains popularity. Mask aside, he's got the build of Elvis, the sound of Elvis, and even the stage presence of Elvis. Could it be?

Well, apparently Time magazine thinks there's a story, so they send Paul Erfurt, a former tabloid reporter specializing in Elvis stories, to investigate. Before he realizes it, he's back into the world of wild hope, speculation, and playing on people's dreams and imagination, just like the old days. This supposed Elvis is really good, but he can't possibly be legit, could he?

That's the mystery that Erfurt must solve, as he peels back the layers on this new King, interviewing his associates, hiring an old friend to do background research, and meeting with "Elvis" himself. The more he digs into things, the more confusing they get. King claims he's the god of song, growing powerful on those who worship his music and helping people find redemption in his words. Yet much of what's going on is standard con game stuff, complete with an unsavory cast of characters running the show.

It's an open and shut case, right? Get some background, add some tricky questions, and the soccer moms and business commuters get their fake Elvis story to read with Conventional Wisdom and George Will, right? Unfortunately for Erfurt, it's not so easy. King turns the tables and tells him it's really his story. There are facts and there are faith, and while Erfurt wants to live in a black and white world, the truth is not nearly so easy.

One of the best parts of "The King" is that despite laying out a lot of facts, Koslowski takes pains to undercut them at every step to make sure that the faith factor--key to King's success and Erfurt's frustration--remains a reliable for the reader. This book is a mystery, but not one with a definitive answer. I've gone over it several times now for this review, and I'm not sure what Koslowski wants the reader to believe--and in the end, that's the point.

Elvis's music was a comfort for so many people over the years, rather like Michael Jackson for my generation. (Don't ask me who fits this role now, my idea of new music is a lost jazz recording.) Heck, Jailhouse Rock was the first song I ever sang at karaoke, after being dead set against it. But once the music started, I was doing silly dance moves and grabbing a chair. Music has great power, and Elvis' music had more than most, like a rare few over the years (Koslowski singles out Mozart, Beethoven, and Sid Vicious). The mystery of that power is explored here just as much as the idea of Elvis returned from the grave.

It doesn't matter how much of a logical mind you have, Koslowski will have you questioning why you require facts for everything, even if only for a brief moment. As person after person tells their story, Erfurt is confronted by the idea that sometimes, the dream is better than the reality. Or is it? Given how things play out, despite setting up the promise of the dream, Koslowksi also taunts you with the idea that dreams don't always lead to happy endings.

King (and Koslowski) tells Erfurt (and the reader) that they must make up their own mind and determine which truth satisfies them the most. Despite being crafted by Koslowski, it's very much your story after you finish it. Erfurt is shown making his decision, but you as the reader must make yours. (And I'm not going to help, either, by sharing mine.) Normally, I'd be a bit unhappy at this state of affairs in a book, but it works perfectly here. Ambiguity is a strong theme in this book, and it's appropriate to carry that through all the way to the end.

I've said a lot about the great story, but nothing of the art. Koslowski's world is just a bit off-kilter and seedy, fitting for the old-school Vegas vibe going on in the narrative. King's followers are a motley crew, from a man who looks like Boris Karloff to a pear-shaped weakling to the overly slick manager of King's church. Erfurt has the hang-dog look of a defeated man and is given a rubber face to do a fair number of reaction shots. The color tones, by Adam Wallenta, set things up perfectly, holding a blue haze over the proceedings in most instances. It all works very well together and shows a strong vision for how Koslowski wanted the story to be presented.

The King is a perfect fit for those who like mysteries, wore out their parents' 45s (or maybe their own 45s!), or like stories that question the nature of perception. It's a great combination by Koslowski, another great book from Top Shelf, and I am looking forward to reading more of his work in the future.