The cover of Hyperthick #1 certainly offers promise. You’ll note a desperate man on a ledge with some alert policemen down below. You’ll note incongruities: a lobster (in hand) and a tiger (stalking). You’ll note a cast of characters with exciting names like “Benny the Hen,” “Kryton Sweeny,” and “Luka Bazooka,” as well as the incomprehensible tagline, “EATING MERINGUE IN A FEROCIOUS AIRSTREAM.” This is "Steve Aylett’s Hyperthick" (it says so right on that very cover and inside on the indicia), and the promise that’s offered by those words and images is delivered on in this 32-page issue but exhaustingly so.
This is Aylett’s second comic book project from Floating World, and the first of three issues that will form a complete Hyperthick miniseries. An Alan-Moore-endorsed novelist of sci-fi satires and super-dense absurdities, Aylett is best known in the comic book world for his fictional biography of not-at-all-real writer Jeff Lint and the corresponding issue of The Caterer by “Jeff Lint” (really Steve Aylett) featuring preposterous action hero Jack Marsden and narrative captions stating things like “corn fries are dead baby angels in oil.”
I am on board with all of these things. I can’t help but perk up when dead baby angels and corn fries are slammed together into the same sentence.
Aylett is a master at the juxtaposition of unusual concepts, words, and images. It verges on nonsense, but his work does not appear to be the random cut-ups that you might find in Tristan Tzara or William S. Burroughs, where words and phrases were literally cut from existing texts and recombined into a strange poetry. With Aylett, it seems that he crafts the grammar and strangeness of what may appear to be random juxtapositions to provide comedic surprises and a sense of unreality.
It works in small doses, but there’s a lot of comic in Hyperthick #1, and the absurdity is unrelenting.
Here, Aylett takes public domain comic book art from a variety of uncredited artists and repurposes it. This is a complete Aylett package, with him providing crude Microsoft-Word-default-font lettering with his script atop a series of existing comic book pages that he has recombined, edited, and sometimes digitally altered. It would be reductive to say that Hyperthick is Steve Alyett’s What’s Up, Tiger Lily? or Sealab 2021, but it’s not completely inaccurate. Aylett has different narrative and thematic concerns than 1960’s-era Woody Allen or the 2000’s-era Williams Street production guys, but when I say that what I mean is that Aylett’s narrative and thematic concerns are not about mayonnaise or evil soda machines and are mostly summed up by a two-page text piece near the back of the comic where Aylett provides a series of anecdotes about the fluidity of truth in storytelling and writes, “A good deal of forbidden honesty has pointed to the fact that society is a temporary construction of dovetailed discrepancies.” That’s a great line. Aylett is great with words. Yet this is not a great comic.
Where Hyperthick #1 fails is in its excesses, but its excesses are implied right in the very title of the comic, so it seems it has achieved its goals in that regard. There’s a muchness here, including many separate stories – at least six, maybe more if you count the text pages – with different genres, varying public domain art styles, and aggressively banal lettering choices. Most of the stories intersect, sort of, with fractal geometry and spatio-temporal disturbances, but if these stories cross over with one another that is saved for future issues, as this first issue is only prologue. It’s quite possible that the whole series is only prologue, and the only certainty is that Aylett will confound your standard narrative expectations.
Where Hyperthick #1 succeeds is in its comedy and its profound wisdom layered within otherwise unusual dialogue exchanges. The first story, “Love at Crash Gate 21”, featuring Benny the Hen, is a buttoned-up adventure tale with flying fists and guys wearing business suits and a “medicinal pamphlet, a treatise in the philosophical parkour tradition.” Straight-laced comic foil Ted (not his real name), opines, “Like a trapdoor in a mobile home – dumb or genius? Depends if it’s moving, right? Same thing with this idea of yours.” In another tale, “The Costly Venture”, the sword-wielding, tri-cornered-hatted hero Fox Grave aboard the ship named “The Golden Ratio” subdues a thick-browed minion while saying, “You’ve been suffocating tiny portions of yourself continually. A starry sky going out one by one.” There are dozens of these verbal gems throughout the issue, the comedy achieved by the contrast of the profundity to the standard visual tropes of boldly-bland genre comic book panels.
For me, the two standard-bearers for absurdity-in-comics are Michael Kupperman, particularly in his shorter pieces from Tales Designed to Thrizzle, and Bob Burden, particularly in the early issues of Flaming Carrot Comics. Aylett’s Hyperthick #1 is in the tradition of those comics but denser and unrelenting. Reading this first issue, I longed for Kupperman’s geometrically-pleasing pages with air between jokes and Burden’s narrative pace with action - building toward something even if that something was completely ridiculous. Aylett’s work here doesn’t provide space for the reader to catch their breath and it doesn’t build toward anything recognizable as a clear storyline with action rising to a meaningful climax. Instead it envelops and almost suffocates.
I wonder if my challenge at remaining engaged with Hyperthick #1 and not feeling overwhelmed by the absurdity to has to do with the use of the public domain artwork as much as it has to do with the number of small stories embedded within. Kupperman and Burden are unrefined artists, but their comics feel like creations. Aylett’s work here feels like a project, an experiment, a gag that goes on too long even though some of the moments are transcendent. Maybe it’s enough that he shows that he’s funny and devilishly good at writing sentences you’ve never seen before. I don’t know that I have the patience or interest to see if Aylett takes this series beyond that threshold in the next two issues, yet the more I write about this first issue and dip back into it the more I find things to enjoy, even if it doesn’t feel fully formed or complete. As a project, experiment, or a gag, it works well enough. As a comic book series, I’m not sure yet.