In "Highwire", the opening entry in Paul Kirchner's new collection Awaiting the Collapse, a tightrope walker navigates the skyway of a busy metropolis. The walker's magical high wire takes him over skyscrapers and into offices, dinner parties, supermarkets, and the homes of the gray citizens who, for panel after panel, fail to look up and see the miracle above them. In the comic's final panels, however, a man gazes up at the high-wire walker in a moment of recognition.
The gazer below, stocky, bald, and garbed in a trench coat and tie, bears more than a passing resemblance to the hero of Kirchner's cult classic The Bus. He strips away his business attire to reveal circus garb beneath and launches after the tightrope walker on his own marvelous trapeze. Thus Kirchner ushers us into the ultravivid, kaleidoscopic world of Awaiting the Collapse. Here, the miraculous is always potential, even in our mundane, mechanized workaday world---we simply have to look up to see it.
This insight---that a more colorful, more surreal world is available to us via imaginative perspective---is threaded throughout Kirchner's cult classic strip The Bus, which originally ran in Heavy Metal between 1979 and 1985. The Bus, which centered on a mundane hero's fanciful duel with the banality of everyday existence, found a second life on the internet through pirated copies---grainy, incomplete versions that hipped a new audience to Kirchner's fabulous comics. In 2015, French publisher Éditions Tanibis released a complete (and very handsome) edition of The Bus strips, along with The Bus 2, a sequel featuring new work.
Tanibis has now published Awaiting the Collapse: Selected Works 1974-2014, a gorgeous compendium of some of Kirchner's finest work over the past four decades. Many of Kirchner's Dope Rider strips are here, along with a handful of his covers for Screw, as well as miscellaneous comics in different genres. Despite the range of years and variety in genres here, Kirchner's surrealist spirit dominates. His comics poke at the weird worlds that vibrate beneath the surface of our own routine reality, offering new ways of seeing old things, to see the real as surreal.
Kirchner's Dope Rider strips are particularly surreal. Dope Rider, a psychedelic skeleton cowboy, embarks on adventures that transcend time, space, and psyche. In "Beans for All", Dope Rider rescues Pancho Villa, busts his revolutionary army out of the hoosegow, and opens the U.S. border, leading the revolution to Las Vegas, a psychedelic city floating over an astral desert. In "Loco Motive", Dope Rider crosses the border again to smuggle good dope back into the mother country. "Crescent Queen" finds Dope Rider on a quest to find mythical Tucumcari. In this episode, Kirchner transmutes the Battle of Little Bighorn into a Pop Art mandala where Plains Indians morph into centaurs. And in "Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch..." our hero... well, our hero smokes some really, really good dope, resulting in a vision that allows Kirchner to show off his estimable visual talents.
Describing Kirchner's art in words is a poor substitute for, like, actually seeing it. Kirchner's strong lines, bold inks, and rich colors recall his boyhood heroes Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby. There's also a commercial discipline to Kirchner's linework that, in its precise articulation of reality, helps to foreground the surreal nature of the work. Observant readers will find allusions to works by Hieronymus Bosch, Rene Magritte, M.C. Escher and others. Kirchner draws from a deep, strange well.
And yet for all the attention to detail and all the layering of allusion, Kirchner's illustrations never feel cramped or stuffy. There's space to breathe here, and this stuff is good to inhale. Dope Rider's drugginess isn't so much narcotizing as enlivening. The strip propels itself with a vivid kinetic energy that functions on its own logic, a visual grammar that Kirchner develops throughout the series.
A key element of this visual grammar is Dope Rider's tendency to transcend plains of existence. If Dope Rider battles the snake demon Diablo in a gun duel in one panel, a few panels later we find Diablo transmuted from a hallucinatory hydra into an extremely difficult pinball game. If we find Dope Rider smuggling weed via locomotive, a few panels later we see him boyishly lording over a model train set. (A few panels later still, our hero tests his product by hitting bong rips from a .50 caliber swivel-mounted machine gun.) Kirchner moves from surreal adventure to the "real" imaginative staging of surreal adventure and back again. Playing with toy trains can spark a smuggling narrative; a thrilling pinball game can turn into a gunfight with a demon. Real and surreal jostle in strange rhythms.
Such imaginative transformations evince in the covers Kirchner did for Al Goldstein's pornographic magazine Screw in the 1970s. In one cover, indicative of Kirchner's taste for drawing ultra-dominant women, men line up like slaves before an enormous nude woman who looms over the landscape like a sacred temple. In another cover, nude female forms fly through the sky like minotaur bomber jets.
If a few of Kirchner's Screw covers evoke psychedelic transformation, more fail to transcend their initial publisher's inherent sexism. In the most offensive example, an old bald man lounges at his leisure on furniture made of young naked women (there's even a "footrest"). In his postscript to Collapse, Kirchner says that he considered the work for Screw humorous, not pornographic, but it's worth noting that he signed most of it with the pseudonym "Kurt Schnürr."
The strips Kirchner did for Goldstein's glossy mag National Screw are more persuasive in their humorous transformations. In an untitled one-pager, a majorette morphs into a whip-wielding dominatrix; in another, a man conjures a sex partner from sheer imagination. The most successful of Kirchner's "erotic" comics is "Dolls at Midnite". In his postscript essay, he refers to the strip as his "homage to the Disney and Max Fleischer cartoons of the 1930s," and his faithful replication of that 1930s style makes the riff all the more unsettling, absurd, and funny. The bawdy comic starts with a highly-sexualized Kewpie doll performing a strip tease and escalates to a full-blown orgy, interrupted only when a pair of adult human feet enter the scene, at which point the orgy-goers transform back into dolls. However, in Kirchner's world transformations are never permanent--the real could slide back into the surreal at any moment.
Kirchner's power to evoke surrealist fantasy evinces throughout the miscellaneous comics collected in Collapse. Standouts include "Hive", a riff on Fritz Lang's Metropolis, and "Tarot", which plays out as a duel between a knight and a wizard (both strips were published originally in Heavy Metal).
"Shaman" is one of the strongest (and longest) pieces in Collapse. The vision quest story showcases some of Kirchner's most imaginative transformations, as well as some of his best character development. Its inherent seriousness---the plot hinges on the life of a sick infant---balances the anarcho-comedy of the Dope Rider strips. Both are surreal Westerns in the vein of Jodorowsky's El Topo, but whereas the Dope Rider strips refuse to establish distinctions between real and surreal, ground and foreground, the vision journey in "Shaman" takes its hero from reality to dreamscape and back again.
Also compelling are Kirchner's more "realistic" surrealist pieces wherein the strange, miraculous, and impossible punctures through the mundane surface of everyday life. In addition to the opener "Highwire", there are pieces like "Critical Mass of Cool", which gives us the apotheosis of shopping mall ticket scalper, and "My Room", a riff on the dangers of trying to keep the real world separate from the surreal world.
Another "realistic surrealist" piece is the last comic in Awaiting the Collapse, "Survivors". This simple black-and-white comic functions as an inverse of "Highwire". In that opener, the tightrope walker emerges as a beacon to those who will see the surreal under the surface; in "Survivors", the central figure, an elderly woman walking her dog, seems oblivious of the apocalypse that destroys the world around her. When the collapse becomes too real, Kirchner gives us a hero who survives it by performing a mundane chore. The survivor quietly walks her dog into a strange new future. She seems to calmly accept the realness of the new reality, and this acceptance is her saving grace.
In the postscript essay he wrote for this new collection, Kirchner writes, "As I go through my daily affairs, I feel I often have one foot in the material world, the other in the world of my imagination." The finest work in Awaiting the Collapse allows us to step into that imaginative world too, and dream along with Kirchner's strange and wonderful visions. Highly recommended.