Here’s a disclaimer that might make you question whether or not you can ever again trust anything I say: I really don’t drink a lot. I’m not a teetotaler, I don’t mind getting tipsy every now and again, but I believe I have gone whole years of my adult life without ingesting any kind of alcohol, and “heavy” consumption for me is drinking more than twice within a calendar year.
Imagine then, dear reader, my unalloyed glee at learning that the latest fantasy epic from Messrs. Brian Azzarello, Nick Floyd, and Simon Bisley was an ode to craft brewing. I wish, in hindsight, that I had read the text on the back cover before I had read the story:
Since 1996, THREE FLOYDS BREWING CO. has built a massive following amongst beer geeks and attained cult status for creating the most insane and delicious craft beers in the world. The ALPHA KING comic expands the world of Three Floyds and unites Nick Floyd with Brian Azzarello, Simon Bisley, and Ryan Brown for a D&D epic that exemplifies Three Floyd’s “Not Normal” slogan on every blood-and-beer-soaked page.
Ah, now this is a language I can speak: corporate synergy. Vanity project.
I think, perhaps, I can pull in my claws a bit. This is a comic that was designed to celebrate someone being successful in the world of craft brewing. Is the beer produced by Three Floyds Brewing Co. any good? I don’t know, maybe you should click on over to TheBeerJournal.com where their resident old grumpy person is reacting in something like unmixed horror to having to review a beer based around a comic book character. I don’t like beer so I’ll most likely die ignorant.
So, alright. I can hear you saying, OK, it’s a comic book designed to promote a craft beer company. There’s a ceiling to what we can reasonably expect from a comic book / alcohol tie-in, and I feel very comfortable asserting that Alpha King is every bit what you might expect from a book designed to help raise brand awareness for a craft beer company. Nothing I say to praise or criticize the book will be able to efface the primacy of that fact in your mind for the rest of this review.
It’s also a Simon Bisley joint, and in 2018 you know what you’re getting with Simon Bisley. He’s a definite #mood, and it’s not one that I necessarily dislike. I positively revere his Lobo, and Slaine the Horned God is I think a misplaced touchstone for a lot of the fantasy that has come out in comics for at least a decade now. But there’s not a lot in Alpha King that stretches Bisley’s particular and peculiar talents.
Vintage Heavy Metal is perhaps an underexplored aesthetic. It’s very much completely itself: power fantasies built explicitly around ideas of vague but violent revolt against sinister authority figures who serve as a substitute for parents and/or bosses and/or the government. To be fair it is a genre with plenty of female representation, as long as you like your warrior women busty and scantily-clad. Plenty of people do, and I became a lot less of a hardass about that when I saw just how many women love those books and characters too.
I stop for the original Heavy Metal movie every time I run across it on cable. Even if in the context of the time a lot of the fantasy imagery was derivative and trite, in hindsight the generic designs and vague gestures towards the direction of story give it a charm that allow the really rather sincere artistic ambitions at the heart of the project to shine through. If you’ve ever felt tempted to sit through Heavy Metal 2000, because they do sometimes play the two films back to back, I would warn you against it. The guileless juvenile charm of the original has been replaced by a middle-aged seediness that doesn’t seem quite to comprehend the source of the original’s charm was its light touch. It already was dystopian and testosterone-soaked, making it grim just made it reactionary.
And perhaps that’s a very important point: youthful signifiers become sharply conservative with time. The powerful Bisley who made Slaine doesn’t seem to have much to chew on here. The protagonist is the Alpha King, and I’m sorry, you don’t need to know the plot. You don’t! It’s not that the plot is bad, it’s that the plot is basically an excuse for Bisley to draw his crazy-eyed muscle-man character breaking the laws of physiology by using exaggerated anatomy to express emotional extremity. Without Bisley it’s hard to imagine Sam Keith, working very similar fields at least through his 90s peak, and after him so many artists who absorbed the influence maybe at one or two generation of remove. It’s definitely really awesome and one of those things that really doesn’t get enough praise.
I mean – Lobo’s Back? Have you ever read Lobo’s Back? I will go on record now as saying that Lobo and Lobo’s Back both, but especially Lobo’s Back, are genuinely great stories. There are other good Lobo stories – lots by all the same gentlemen, even – but the character was never more fully conceived or perfectly focused in execution. And it worked because the material was funny and it called for someone who understood that overbuilt muscle monsters were inherently funny, and sometimes yeah people got hurt and elbows turned into dongs. It was the 90s. Shit happened, broseph.
I’d much rather be sitting here telling you that Lobo’s Back is a genuinely witty and gorgeous book – even if it also has a few things about gender I might not like so much in hindsight, I’m remembering, I guess I’ll go back and see one of these days – than talking about how much my pulse was not quickened by reading the same Bisley draw a beer comic. There’s fun stuff throughout, but trying to hold onto a story is a fool’s errand. The stuff that sticks out in memory does so because it understands that the material really needs to be genuinely funny on some level to work. Stuff like the Black Knight trying to read the future with beer coasters as Tarot cards. Completely silly but you’ll keep the image in your head because Bisley drew it like no one else.
Sadly a lot of the rest of the book seems sour. It almost – and I mean juuuuust barely – seems to avoid making some kind of statement to the effect that millennials are various varieties of effete oversensitive nitwit, but only because the story never really coheres into anything long enough for a barb to stick. There’s fascists and granola manbuns fighting together against the Real Hardcore Dudes, and I think you know that there’s only one tape in the Real Hardcore Dude’s car, and it’s Side A Led Zep IV and Side B Presence, and it’s only been that one tape since 1985, and that one fact really explains a lot about Real Hardcore Dude culture.
Think about if that was the only music you knew. The only music you got high to, made love to, synched up to The Wizard of Oz.
What kind of person would that make you?
Maybe the kind of person who considers dropping the better part of an Andrew Jackson on a beer ad?