The intergalactic adventures of Motel Universe unfold in seemingly free-form fashion, driven by creator Joakim Drescher’s delightfully go-for-broke imagination in both storytelling and visuals, along with his seriously loopy sense of humor. Drescher sneaks in some potent tropes about scapegoating and the exploitation of the most vulnerable members of society, but his satire is offered up in such over-the-top surreality that it all goes down quite easily. Drescher is clearly having a lot of fun with his creations and that fun is contagious.
The plot centers around a hapless slave race of folks known as the Skins. The story opens with two of them, a father and his young daughter named Plum, being cast out of an apparent place of safety by a weird tiny being who rides a bird as if it were a horse. As they are forced to fly off into the dangerous unknown, the father laments: “Nothing changes, there is no sanctuary. As long as the skin of our people is precious – we will be HUNTED FOR IT!”
The pair are soon captured by a band of cruel humanoid dogs known as the Jeffs (all of whom are named Jeff). The Jeffs are under orders from their evil master, who appears to be the ghost of Caligula (yes, that Caligula). Caligula has a monstrous henchman named Barney who quickly snuffs out any Jeff who gets out of line.
We soon learn that captured Skins are kept in holding pens, until it’s time to release them into the jungle. There they are hunted by various citizens from different planets, who pay handsomely for the opportunity. “I can’t wait to get my hands on some Skins,” says one heavyset dowager. “I hear they are class A.” The latest hunt begins, and all seems lost for the Skins, including our father-and-daughter duo, but then another race of very odd-looking but benevolent creatures known as the Hermans shows up to intervene. The Hermans are not only sweet-natured but literally sweet: they subsist entirely on sugar deposits they mine in underground caves. Finally, on top of it all, a shady real-estate developer named Barton Flump happens on the scene, with an offer for Caligula that may change things up entirely.
Though the look and feel of Motel Universe is dense and surreal as all hell, it remains a highly entertaining and readable adventure. The plot flows smoothly and the wacky world Drescher builds has its own internal logic. Still, Dresher provides a helpful character guide on the book’s endpapers to keep everyone straight. It features not only all the lead characters but the peripheral ones as well, such “Guest 3” and the "Onlookers.”
The story is laden with humor, but there are recognizable parallels to our real, all-too-distressing world. The Jeffs, for example, are pure conformists; they’re almost identical (not unlike the Star Wars stormtroopers), and they mindlessly victimize those less powerful while obviously remaining low in the pecking order themselves, vulnerable to harm. Their victims, the Skins, adrift from whatever their original homeland was, seek sanctuary where they can, always at the mercy of the cruel or mercenary.
Then there’s the crass Barton Flump, an obvious stand-in for Donald Trump, who we are informed made “quadrillions with his ‘Motel Universe’ – a seedy star system filled with gaudy casinos, brothels, and super sky-scrapers.” Flump is attracted to the planet where all the conflict is raging, but all he wants from it is to profit. He envisions building “a garden of Eden for whores and bankers! With Ayn Rand as our God!” He’s basically no less repulsive than the real thing.
But all of this is so wildly imagined and rendered with such good humor that it creates a comfortable distance for the reader. We never have to take any of the allegorical elements terribly seriously if we don’t want to, but we’re invited to thoroughly enjoy it when the heroes manage to seize control and mete out some richly deserved revenge upon some of the villains.
Drescher, a Danish cartoonist and illustrator, has a naïve, slightly ratty line that reminds me a little of early '80s Lynda Barry, while his childlike, awkward, surpassingly strange character designs and penchant for patterning recall Mark Beyer. But he remains a sui generis talent, and his extravagant satire hits the spot in these crazy-weird times. I really enjoyed this delightful, warped journey through his id. Though we’re only halfway through the year, Motel Universe is already on my list of favorite comics of 2019.