REVIEWS

Good News Bible: The Deadline Strips of Shaky Kane

The best-designed books don't just look nice, they make statements about what's inside of them. Whether or not those statements get backed up is the author's responsibility; but good design has a way of laying expectations out on the table. It's impossible to go into a well-designed book completely cold. Good News Bible: The Deadline Strips of Shaky Kane is a well-designed book, courtesy of Joe Hales, and the statement it makes couldn't be plainer: Shaky Kane Is A Major Artist. Big as a tombstone and packing some serious weight, this volume looks less like a "trade paperback" than a monograph. Especially in the context of the rest of its publisher Breakdown Press's usually DIY-ish line, where staple binding and risograph printing predominate, this kind of slick and colorful presentation makes a clear proclamation of its importance. Knowing that it's been on the docket for the entirety of its publisher's existence just adds weight.

Is Shaky Kane A Major Artist, though? If you're forking over the 25 pounds sterling (or however much that is in countries with proper dental care) for a collection of early work, you probably aren't much in doubt. Still, it's a question worth asking - this book adds to Kane's available output by a fairly hefty percentage, and none of that output goes down with particular ease. Dude is a weird-ass cartoonist, basically, and if anything the itchy, uncomfortable technicolor deconstructions of American pop culture his work currently trades in are a lot easier to grapple with than the comics on display in Good News Bible

This is difficult stuff, work that originally appeared in anthology issues alongside (somewhat) more conventional comics. To analogize with some other influential weirdo British art, Kane's strips in the Deadline comics magazine functioned a little like Brian Eno's synthesizers did in Roxy Music, adding outre bits of pure bizarrerie to a bouquet of forward-looking but still definable material. Like Eno, Kane eventually proved himself more than capable of putting together solo works that retained his individualism while acting, at least superficially, like the commercial objects they're packaged and sold as. But, you know, imagine an album of just the blorps and whizzies that Eno contibuted to those Roxy records! It'd be awesome if you're into that kind of thing, and so is this book. Kane's work on The Bulletproof Coffin is the kind of stuff pretty much anyone who's interested in comics can get something out of; Good News Bible is the connoisseur's choice, unfiltered and very strange.

A lot of how weird the stories in this book feel is their brevity. Few are the strips here that top out at longer than four pages, and few are the pages that feature more than four panels. The debt Kane's art owes to Jack Kirby is the unmissable aspect of his style, but in approach the work here more closely resembles that of another '60s Marvel titan, Jim Steranko. Figures stand isolated against master landscapes stretching though multiple panels and across spreads. Jumbles of ominous images refer to each other more than actually connecting up. Often neither page layout nor verbiage denote a proper reading order to move from frame to frame in. These pages function more as single design units than they do as carriers of continuous narrative. Kane's use of the comics form throughout this book is challenging but very rewarding, excising more story content than most cartoonists would dare and allowing his drawings to come to the fore.

Those drawings: they're pretty incredible. Kane has undoubtedly grown as a craftsman in the decades since he drew these comics, but what these pictures lack in polish they more than make up in purity and power. Comics people will always notice Kane's Kirbyism first, and for good reason - his understanding of the King's style goes beyond the studied and appears genuinely instinctive. The delicate balance of black and white, the fluidity of the black areas, the way the forms squash and stretch despite their blockiness - it's the stuff about Kirby that pastiches almost always miss or simply can't pull off that Kane nails, the feel more than the exact look of Kirby's work. As far as actual appearances go, these drawings fit right into a sweet spot between Kirby's heft and Raymond Pettibon's slashy, ribboning energy. There's something else here too, though, a compositional elegance and lean toward simplicity that unexpectedly calls Patrick Nagel to mind. Just about every drawing in this book looks genuinely iconic, like you've seen it on a ton of telephone poles and tumblr sites before, even though you haven't. Textures crackle off each other - the smooth depth of India ink, the massed fuzz of Xerox, the crisp static of charcoal, the ridgy whorl of pasted-up engravings.

When the colors emerge, they look like they were stolen from a paint-by-numbers kit or a Warhol painting. The old canard about three chords and a haircut being all you need to start a band has a comics equivalent; all you really gotta have is four colors, but you sure better know how to put them all together. It’s Kane’s way with juxtaposing color more than his actual hues that pops eyes here. Vomit yellows clang off nuclear oranges and periwinkle squiggles worm through fields of aquamarine, and even when there’s nary a warm color in sight it all gives the impression of extreme heat. Sometimes a cliche is the best way of putting something - this book is a feast for the eyes.

Your brain won’t go underserved either, though the stories in this comic are more El Bulli than Del Taco. Kane’s insistence on letting bold, impactful imagery be his polestar makes for some bracing reading. The meat of Good News Bible is up front, where the adventures of the Christian fundamentalist Judge Dredd parody team the A-Men wiggle their way through one of the most bizarre serialized super-group narratives ever published. That’s not hyperbole: the A-Men might engage in battles, they might band together as a team to defeat forces no one of them could take on alone, and they might have secret origin stories, but we don’t see any of those things here. Mostly we see them stand around posing, spilling Alan Moore-lite tales of the psychological disintegration their service to God and (maybe) country has wrought before gibbering off into utter free-associative nonsense like actual crazy people do.

It’s rare to read works that feel like they’ve come from a place of genuine derangement, like the narrative thinking processes we use both as readers and irl to keep the world understandable might not just have been set aside for a brief moment of creation, but like the creator’s familiarity with them might simply be rather remote. It’s become something of a critical cliché to do postmodern readings of exceptionally shitty superhero comics from the Silver Age or the Image ‘90s as subconsciously surrealist or dadaist fantasy zones where the rules of logic and linearity are suspended in favor of pure imagination; but mostly those comics are just shitty in ways that can be slightly interesting if you want them to be. This book is actually that, a comic that you expect to read like “a comic” but instead proudly wears an utter disconnection from the rules of the game. Set free from logic, even comic book logic, Good News Bible frequently twists from baffling to incredibly poignant in the space of a panel transition. Kane wrings a great deal of unexpected pathos from the A-Men’s final tales, as the unstoppable Fornicator Terminator becomes the contemptible Crying Man and the corpse of Christ floats, Captain America-like, through the endless black void of deep space, and very much so on and so forth.

Huge kudos should go to Breakdown Press for getting Kane himself to pen quick annotations to every story in the back of the book. It’s like finding a map to the Winchester Mystery House - you still won’t be able to get from the stairs to the shitter very easily, but at least you know there’s some kind of way through. Kane gives terse, charming little anecdotes about how things like the way the Daleks from Doctor Who look a little like an upside-down bobby’s helmet inspired not just full stories but whole new characters, or how the desire to kill off the A-Men led to the creation of their Wiccan opposite numbers, the G-Men. Ultimately, there isn’t much orthodox “sense” to be made of this stuff, but it has what all good stories do: rhythm, direction, purpose, scale. It’s hard reading, and it’s good reading.

At the halfway point, Good News Bible splinters into disconnected one-off strips, mainly in full color. Kane’s imagery grows more and more refined here, as he moves further and further from comics as they’re typically contructed and more toward a hybrid form that has much to do with collage and poster art. Without the pretense of continuing characters or an overarching narrative, the art goes from merely iconic to embracing images of actual icons, fusing graphic power to the power of celebrity. Sid Vicious, Godzilla, and Queen Elizabeth flip by in technicolor as the pages turn, and the totemic figure of The Atomic Eraser, not so much a character as a totemic image repurposed from the cover of a vintage Batman book, floats through it all bemoaning his lost childhood innocence. This stuff, while retaining its Kirbyist visual grammar, has the most in common with Gary Panter’s contemporaneous work, and could easily have run in Raw alongside it. It’s comics as poetry more than prose, but lithe and muscular poetry like Emily Dickinson wrote, where the tinier the box is the bigger the explosions of fireworks will seem inside it.

It’s an exhilarating, exhausting sequence, but it actually manages to build to a honest-to-god narrative climax when the A-Men return alongside two new characters, the truly warped Prowler and Mail Order Jesus. The black spaces in Kane’s art fade to sickly limes and lavenders, imagery stretches taffy-like across and between panels, and neon color spaces pulse and fade to the rhythm of their psychopathic inhabitants’ whims. The torture and murder-obsessed dynamic duo’s sadistic reminisces and master plans are flung out at us in huge, scrawled capitals or block typewriter script as the bodies of their victims adorn the edges of pages. The cheery gallows humor of the early A-Men strips is replaced by a glowering and incredibly malicious focus, something jet black and diamond hard.

The impression this work leaves is like turning to see the guy who you used to always pass on the corner talking to himself running full-bore at you with a knife raised before everything fades to black. The “Prowler” and “Mail Order Jesus” strips are some of the most purely disturbing comics I’ve ever read, right up there with the best of Josh Simmons and Al Columbia, and they’re made even more nightmarish by their bright and shiny graphic treatment. This kind of unremitting brutality is rare in any medium. “I must have lost a sense of what was palatable to the reader,” says Kane of this last period of his employment at Deadline, reproducing an indignant letter to the editor. He probably isn’t wrong, but if you’ve got a taste for extremity, true believer, you won’t do much better.

It’s a dizzying end to a dizzying book, one that might read better in the chunks it was originally created in. But holy cow, if you’re in the mood to get mollywhopped by a comic, knock Good News Bible back in one. Each strip in here contains its own individual grain of inspiration, and all bear witness to a very unconventional genius - a broad and hugely appealing visual sense wedded to a viewpoint that is highly personal and occasionally capable of being genuinely shocking. Is Shaky Kane A Major Artist? Really, that’s neither here nor there. He’s fucking awesome.

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One Response to Good News Bible: The Deadline Strips of Shaky Kane

  1. EAS says:

    Been holding off on this book but this review sealed the deal. Just ordered it.

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