Image Month: Trading Up: King City

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Over 400 pages of creative visuals, and a wild playfulness that is hard to resist from Brandon Graham. That’s about the easiest way to sum up this surprising and innovative series.

Originally published as a number of digests from Tokyopop before finding a new home, and greater audience, at Image Comics, this new collection gathers the entire 12 issue run in all its frantic glory. King City is one of those comics, much like Jonathan Hickman’s The Nightly News, that comes along, but not often enough, to shake people’s expectations of what comics can achieve. This is a widely, and wildly, praised series for a reason and, again, like The Nightly News, it’s the product of a singular vision, and also served to put its creator on the map, and thus we have Graham receiving more attention as the scribe behind Image’s Prophet relaunch.

And here’s where things become difficult. I could attempt to explain what King City is about, but I’d just be offering a simple account of events, but that won’t do, as King City deserves to be discovered, as there are treasures in every nook and cranny. Okay, here goes.

Cat Master Joe ventures to the titular city, his former home for the first time in two years after living at a farm. His cat is named Earthling J. J. Cattingsworth the Third, but he’s not a pet. Cat juice in the form of various needles give Earthling different abilities. With the right injection he can be turned into a periscope, make copies of keys, open doors, or be used as a TV or camouflage device, all while still looking like his feline self. That’s one handy cat.

Joe’s adventures are sometimes intertwined with his friend Joe, who looks like one of the kids from Bill Cosby’s Fat Albert cartoon, and is caring for an attractive alien girl who breathes water. Joe’s ex-lover Anna is involved with stitched together druggie Maximum, who was a soldier in the war against Korean xombies. He’s also addicted to a drug called Chalk which eventually turns users into the drug itself.

There’s also the sexy Beebay who recruits Joe in her fight against evil, and a sasquatch called Lukashev who runs a so-called launch box, one of many spy hotels hidden throughout the city. Phew.

All of this is never presented as weird. Just matter of factly, like a Terry Gilliam film or a scene from The Mighty Boosh. Fans of Scott Pilgrim will understand what this book is trying to achieve, although King City doesn’t quite share the wit and sincerity on display within Bryan Lee O’Malley’s six volumes, but it does inject steroids into the whackiness.

Every scene is an opportunity for Graham to coax out a mad idea or two, such as a stakeout across the road from a ninja school (one of the students turns into a log) and a restaurant (where the waiters wear fish on their heads and the customers eat body parts, and salad made from money).

Graham shows his writing chops too, as the story is brimming with puns, wordplay, and funny asides, such as a scene where Joe realizes a lot has happened in the two years he’s been gone, complete with arrows pointing to people in a crowded bar with captions such as, “Married his arch-nemesis,” and “murdered a man with a garden hose.”

Graham’s artistic stylings are the more obvious standout though. There’s nothing else like it. His black and white renderings sit somewhere between the detail of Geoff Darrow and the simple cartooning of Sergio Aragaones with some manga flair thrown in for good measure. He loves his white space but it never comes across as lazy. Yes, there are some conflicting descriptions, but his linework is deceptively simple and he treats every page, or double page spread, with great compositional care. Even elements that comics readers often overlook, such as title pages, caption boxes and sound effects are not what we’ve seen before.

This whole tome is ripe for discovery and as such, is thankfully not a quick read. There are bonus features like one-page comics, and crosswords in which the clues are story related. Also included are an honest afterword and some color pages including the original trippy covers.

Graham takes his time, and space to tell this story. Sure other writer/artists could tell the same tale in far fewer pages, but Graham isn’t in a hurry. He leads the reader through the city like a proud tourist guide, which leads to unexpected discoveries such as someone hiding in a bin asking Joe to kill his evil twin as he passes by, or street signs with declarations such as, “No burying bodies or gold. No demon summoning. No duels to the death. No escape!!”

Obviously, this comic won’t be for everyone, but if you relish big ideas, likeable characters and an unashamed sense of fun, get your ticket to this City.

King City is a 424 page Trade Paperback from Brandon Graham and published by Image Comics. It retails for $19.99.

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