Connor Willumsen's 2017 book Anti-Gone announced to all in no uncertain terms what those who'd been paying attention had known for a while: his audience sits in the presence of brilliance. What was so thrilling about that book, the immediate predecessor to the one at hand, was that it seemed to signal an arrival. Willumsen has been a master draftsman for years, both confident stylist and dead-eyed cartoon realist, one of the worthiest descendants of Moebius (who has birthed no shortage of bastard offspring) that North America has seen. But his earlier works labor with weighty themes and unconventional methods of delivery, clearly on the trail of something both interesting and exciting yet not quite able to square the circle and find an equal measure of experimentalism and entertainment simultaneously. Anti-Gone's tale of futuristic hedonists adrift in the detritus of late capitalism and climate catastrophe walks that tightrope with panache, permanently dispelling the suspicion that Willumsen might have been best served to cut the fat and just do a Western or something. It announced that the overture had ended, and Willumsen's career as an Important Cartoonist had begun in earnest.
Anything that good is a tough act to follow, but Bradley of Him comfortably raises the bar as a pure exhibition of Willumsen's skill set, any random flip through its pages testifying to the fact that its author is working on a level higher than all but a handful of comics artists are capable of. But it's also a retrenchment, or maybe a reminder. Having reached a redoubt as lofty as Anti-Gone (now complete with experimental theater adaptation!) didn't mean the deliberate, striving quality of Willumsen's earlier works would be abandoned for a plateau of sustained quality - just that its creator's continued searching was going to be something that demanded more attention than previously thought. Bradley of Him is as much a Challenging Work as any Willumsen, an avant-garde comic that uses its author's incredible skill to attempt maneuvers which would completely derail a project by a lesser talent. It's manifestly the work of a genius, but one whose delights beg consideration more than enjoyment. It's really, really weird. If you're not down for that, it runs right past you.
As is extremely not-obvious from Bradley of Him's title or the way its main character is drawn, the book stars Bradley Cooper, at loose ends in Las Vegas following an Academy Awards ceremony (Leo DiCaprio makes a scene-stealing cameo in a flashback sequence). Its first half is taken up by Bradley taking a run through the desert that in duration, physical cost, and neural effect resembles the rite of the vision quest. Voices of fellow stars echo through his perceptions, as tangible or more so than the cops and paramedics who attempt to dissuade him - before he collapses, unable to continue. After a Bergman-esque interlude that sees our hero rescued by a vacationing family in exchange for an acting exhibition, he returns to the Strip and the mega-casino where he began, making stilted, awkward attempts at interaction with his pitiless chrome-plated environment before closing the book with an acceptance speech-cum-monologue.
The themes aren't hard to grasp: celebrity as a fundamental process of dehumanization, the desert and the metropolis conjured as equally barren wastelands, human interaction reduced to a series of performances. Willumsen's note-perfect rendering of banal people and the banality of their interactions, honed to an even keener edge here than it was in Anti-Gone, keeps these subjects at arm's length throughout the book, feeling more displayed than inhabited. Characters and set pieces are offered up as spectacle rather than drama - possessed of greater vastness than they are depth. In Willumsen's hands, comics actually become a facet of our wider media culture: Bradley of Him, unlike a crushing majority of its medium, takes as its subject matter the kind of stuff we're constantly inured to treat with import. Celebrities, extreme athletic feats, big-budget entertainment products, and ostentatious leisure combine into a book that manages a legitimate dialogue with the world around it, attempting and succeeding at something most comics abdicate completely. Yet there isn't much to feel about here, and that's probably the point. Willumsen's ultimate subject, as in Anti-Gone, seems to be consumerism, and his book's effect mimics that of its muse: a slowly creeping, not unpleasant enervation.
The artwork mirrors the narrative's exquisite vapidity. I have a vivid memory of a well known comics critic thrusting a Marshall Rogers Batman trade at me years ago and proclaiming it the ultimate in "cocaine comics", but Willumsen might just have snatched that crown for himself. The amount of sheer roiling energy put on these pages in order to evoke the empty is staggering. Willumsen has for a while been one of comics' premier draftsmen, but also - as if to mirror his comics' choices in narratives - has frequently resisted playing things conventionally, often seeming to purposely invest more labor into visual strategies bound to prove less rewarding. (This is a dude who bowed out of a gig at Marvel in part because he insisted on drawing six-panel pages instead of the proscribed four.) But in Bradley of Him both Willumsen's chops and his relentless visual imagination are given full rein, investing starlit mesas and neon casino pits with a weary grandeur. Everything but the lettering in Bradley of Him is rendered in pencil, with meticulous shading giving the book a soft focus that provides a referendum on its creator's skill while also lending its images a refreshingly doodley quality.
Seeing all that graphite brings readers face to face with the insane amount of work Willumsen puts into every page: short of Chris Ware, I can't think of anyone else whose comics drip with this much muchness. Willumsen's labyrinthine layouts also owe a debt to Ware, though perhaps one arrived at via some of those '70s and '80s cocaine comics superstars like Rogers or Paul Gulacy, guys who approached silly ass work with a level of seriousness that basically begs its readers to arrive at chemicals as a cause. Willumsen's layouts bring to mind the obsessive wringing of a wet cloth, so relentlessly does he exhort every centimeter of his pages for contribution. Big, psychedelic showpiece images corkscrew into rows of postage-stamp sized ones, the eye is led in dizzying spirals and tight knotholes through sequences of panels seemingly designed for disorientation, and every inch of everything is laden with obsessive markmaking - except the ones that aren't, yawning with clean white void that menaces the tiny, perfectly limned figures moving through it. Willumsen's understanding of comics as a medium of elision, of leaving things out, seems contradicted by how busy so many of these pages are, but the way he visualizes his subjects, frequently focusing on a single item or character and excluding everything else from pictorial space, shows that he's right there on the reader's side, guiding them expertly through the blizzard of drawing he delivers. That pages so stuffed read so seamlessly is remarkable.
None of this makes Bradley of Him sound super fun - and it isn't, really. This is a difficult book whose rewards are chilly and cerebral, one whose construction makes even the consummate pleasure of drinking in its artist's drawings into rigor. Its narrative, too, lacks much in the way of punch or pathos, instead content to survey the nauseatingly familiar with a gaze that renders it disturbingly alien. Still, it's hard to read the book without feeling an overwhelming appreciation for its existence, for the labor it represents and its manifestly superior quality. Not everything good is fun or even visceral. Willumsen has created a very odd comic that withholds the entertaining, but gets the reader considering what exactly entertainment is. Why these choices, why this way? The methods with which Bradley of Him is delivered have as much to say as what they're delivering. Willumsen's message, his wispy, ghostly, penciled panels whisper, is his medium.