January 26, 2012

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The Bulletproof Coffin Volume 1

Written by David Hine
Illustrated by Shaky Kane
Image Comics

Steve Newman has a very odd and macabre job.  He tidies up after someone is dead, sending things off to the junkyard where they belong.  But sometimes, things catch his eye.  Little, kitschy things, mostly related to pop culture.  The dead don't need them, so what's the harm?  Steve keeps them in his attic, tucked away from two bratty kids and a wife he seems to dislike for unknown reasons.  One night, Steve finds some comic books that shouldn't exist, and his life is immediately torn upside down.  Faster than a golden age artist can ink, Steve is drawn into a world that involves the very characters he's reading on the page, as his whole life plays out in front of him in full four color insanity.  Is Steve part of a desperate attempt to save the world, or just completely nuts?  Only two old creators know for sure, and they may not be telling!  Find out the truth in the story of the Bulletproof Coffin.

I'm really glad this was a part of Image's digital holiday sale on Comixology late last year, because I'm not sure that I would have picked it up otherwise.  The idea is intriguing, but I have no experience with either of the creators, so without an incentive to try it, I might have taken a pass.

That would have been a big mistake, and I urge you not to do the same thing.  This is exactly the kind of meta-textural comics homage that works so well for creators such as Grant Morrison, Warren Ellis, and Alan Moore, and I think David Hine stands alongside them with this book in terms of crafting a tale that looks inward but manages to do so in a way that works.  It's no easy trick, either.  If you reference too heavily, then the reader is either confused (they don't get the references) or annoyed by how clever the writer is trying to be.  If you don't reference enough, then it looks like a weak attempt to cash in on books that use an old-school feel in order to try to do the same thing that creators such as John Byrne or Kurt Busiek can manage effortlessly but are failing to replicate (or worse, trying to blatantly copy).

On top, you have the problem of trying to ensure that your plot makes sense, when it is weaving in and out of reality.  Hine has to be very careful that his plot lines up neatly on all counts, because any mistake in this regard sends the entire story collapsing into chaos.  He manages this very well, however, with only a few moments where the reader might have reason to question how something is possible.  Like any good writer dealing with a complex subject that probably would not hold up to extreme scrutiny, Hine keeps the plot moving briskly enough that all but a few readers will happily accept what is happening, and not worry too much about things like how a wristwatch can exist without having a true starting point.  After all, any time travel or alternative reality story, from Man in the High Castle to Dr. Who, has a hard time staying intact if you pick at it too long.

With a wave of his hand, and references/homages that extend into back page material and ads, Hine (along with his artist, Shaky Kane) keeps us bobbing about and looking at all the cool stuff while he skirts a few potential problems.  There's so much about comics history that Hine uses in the story that even if you only know the barest of information about Western comics, you'll be able to get the point.  We have previously unknown stories of Golden Age characters who are every bit as brutal or exploitative as their real-world counterparts.  There's a dead cop exacting revenge, a buxom jungle girl who's often barely clothed and is constantly threatened by "natives", a mysterious figure, a cursed man--from an Egyptian source, of course!--who must help others, and the character Steve slowly gravitates towards, Coffin Fly.  Each gets a brief outing as a comic book, with the stories increasingly involving poor Steve.  They also start to become more modern, with things like zombies and Viet Nam playing roles.  By the time Steve confronts the source of the comics, we even get a glimpse of modern re-imaginings for these characters--something long-time comics fans are all too familiar with these days.

The homages and little visual Easter Eggs are a credit to Hine and Kane.  While Kane's artwork is almost primitive in nature, resembling a less refined Paul Grist or John McCrae, it works very well here, partly because Golden Age comics art is often quite primitive as well.  The characters are almost flat at times, giving a sense of unreality to the proceedings that I think helps the reader know that something isn't quite right.  While not possessing the technical skills of some of the artists I've seen to comics homage work (it's going to be really hard to beat Gene Ha or John Cassiday), Kane's variety is impressive.  Characters in the book all get their own visual quirks that fit their role.  I could easily imagine any of the Golden Age stories actually existing in a book akin to All Star Comics, and their odd shapes and violent acts play out vibrantly across the page, aided and abetted by the extremely strange choices in color, which appear to be done by Kane (I cannot find a separate colorist credit).

Though I really enjoyed this story and I liked how the ending fits the rest of the plot like a glove, there is a bit of a muddle at the end where Hine gets in his digs at the major publishers of comics.  I don't think it was necessary to be as heavy handed as we see here in order to tell this story.  I get that money can ruin comics, but I think the allusion is taken a bit too far in the final issue.  It's brief, however, so it doesn't bother me enough to scare anyone away.  Just be ready for a bit of muttering "I get it" under your breath as we approach the final pages of the story.

The Bulletproof Coffin is a solid mini-series that plays with reality and comics history in a way that any fan of those concepts should enjoy and people who like both should really love.  There's a lot to like in this one, and I'm glad I got the chance to read it.  I think you will be, too.