May 21, 2014

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King City Review

King City
Written and Illustrated by Brandon Graham
Published by Image, 2012
Graphic Novel, 424 pages
Reviewed by Maia Kobabe

I read King City for the first time in February of last year. Although there were still ten long months to go until the end of the year, I had no hesitation in declaring it my favorite comic book discovery of 2013 the minute I closed the cover. It has absolutely everything I want in a comic.

The story opens with a shot of King City: part Tokyo, part Seattle, part New York, this heavily graffiti-ed and demon-infested city is more than just a setting. It has a personality as strong as any of the characters. This is a city full of secrets and spies, hustlers, panhandlers, assassins, aliens. Beneath its streets and tunnels are sub-basements and sub-sub-basements, layered down into the darkness. It doesn't matter how deep they are, Joe can break into them for the right price. Joe has a cat and the cat is a weapon. More specifically, the cat is Earthling J.J. Catingsworth the Third. He is as deadly as he is adorable. Given a shot of cat juice Earthling can do anything. He can swallow a key and spit out an exact copy; he can be used as a periscope, a parachute or a hover-board; he can fire darts, perform autopsies and translate languages. He can read, write and play chess. Needless to say, Earthling is a very valuable ally.

At the start of the book, Joe has just returned home to King City from California were he received his Cat Master training and was partnered with Earthling. There are both friends and enemies waiting to welcome his return. Joe's very first job back in the city ends when a man with a black suit and skulls on his fingernails knocks Joe off a moving train into the filthy water of the bay. Next, Joe's buyer is murdered in an alley by a gang of ninjas in owl masks. When Joe and the Cat search the body they find a key hidden in the heel of his shoe to a secret spy hotel called Nowhere. Also, the dead man's nipples are made of bone and his belly button has teeth. That's King City for you.

As wild and inventive as the plot is, the art matches it step for step. Graham hand inks his pages, then scans the linework and tones digitally. Nearly every page in the book is full bleed, making it feel as if the details of the city spill outward beyond the boundaries of what this book can hold. Many of the pages are straight story telling, but there are also pages where Graham lets his mad imagination take hold. One page of the book is a crossword puzzle, each clue and answer related to the book's characters. When Joe and two of his friends head off on three separate tasks, the next double page spread opens up like a game board- each character's path marked across the city in number squares. 

Later on there is a map of California absolutely packed with puns- as a Bay Area native I was especially tickled to see the city by the bay renamed as Sham Francisco, Oakland as OK Land and Napa as Nada. Throughout the book there are informative sidebars letting you know the exact contents of someone's pockets. If I have one quibble, it would be the lettering. King City is digitally lettered, and I had no problems with it- until I compared in to the hand lettering of Graham's latest book Multiple Warheads. The digital lettering is perfectly adequate, but nothing compared to the warmth of his hand lettering.

Brandon Graham started King City as a personal project and was already drawing the sixth chapter before a publisher saw it. Becky Cloonan recommended the book to Tokyopop, who published the first half of the story. The whole book was finally collected by Image Comics (who later hired Graham as a writer for their restart of Prophet). Graham writes in an afterword that before he started this book he had never drawn a story longer than 100 pages. I would never have guessed. This book does not read like the first long-format story of an emerging artist. It reads like a masterpiece from a major talent. Graham speaks in comics as a native language.