So when you sit down to crack the spine on a chunk of Eurocomics sci-fi psychedelia, do you ever give any thought as to what the ghost of Hugo Gernsback might think on the subject? Because I must admit the thought has crossed my mind! What was that old equation for perfect science fiction - 75% literature and 25% science? Well I ran the numbers and it turns out by Gernsback’s measure Kris Kool is 100% smut.
Now, you may smile at that, knowing as you do that the prominence of Gernsback’s brand of literary prescriptivism has long since waned. As well it should have! But it points to a pathway nonetheless, slightly less taken. Does it seem slightly besides the point to see a book that looks like Kris Kool and quibble over questions of genre? Well, it’s clearly science fiction, right? Right? Kris Kool is an interplanetary adventurer who travels across the solar system and into parallel dimensions. How does Kris’ ship travel through space? Who the fuck knows, he flies commercial. He’s got “space pilot reflexes,” handy in a pinch. What more do you need?
If you don’t know already it shouldn’t surprise you to hear from that description that Kris Kool is a French book. The important literary principle to remember is that it’s all always fantasy, the only question is the manner of authenticating context - does the story give you spaceships or dragons? Well, Kris Kool gives us spaceships, so it’s sci-fi. Nominally. I doubt the book really cares what we think. It’s impermeable to our concerns. It follows no logic but that of a dream, or a trip. As in, a trip. Which would be a reductive and frankly tendentious assertion in the vast majority of instances, but no - Kris Kool was definitely and loudly designed to be a trip.
This was 1970, and it would have almost certainly been some time after that before anyone in the English speaking world would have found Caza. Philippe Cazaumayou was a commercial artist who spent the later part of the 1960s developing the perfectly realized and design-intensive aesthetic that blossoms fully formed from the very first page. Kris Kool was at the time published alongside a number of other erotic books under the umbrella of French bookseller Eric Losfeld’s small press - you might recognize fellow Losfeld alumna Barbarella or Jodelle. Sometimes Caza is an extraordinarily lucid storyteller, but often the pages are collages that take time to decipher. This isn’t the book for long technical asides about the composition of the radiation shielding on Kris’ spaceship, and likewise sometimes pacing and composition jumble under the weight of expression. Every page offers a different solution to the problems of story, but the sum total isn’t as daunting as all that would seem to imply. It’s actually quite a breezy read. The never-ending novelty pulls you right along. The parts that don’t work as well are still quite striking.
When you break it down the story is, well, ah, it’s basically Barbarella with a dude (or leastwise, the first book & subsequent movie adaptation of Barbarella). An eminently virile space age super-agent has to go somewhere and do something vaguely violent but ends up making a lot of whoopee on his way towards defeating some kind of generally repressive force. But the mechanics of the plot aren’t really important, because the whole thing unfolds with the alacrity of a dream. Later eruptions of European sci-fi, beautiful as they may be, can often be alienating to unwary readers, owing to the precise suspicion that for all their artistic pretentious the Continent just doesn’t take these things very seriously. Spaceships are sexy and plots are for hanging your clothes on when you need to get naked. Gernsback sense tingling! Are we not taking ourselves seriously enough???
That conservatism constrains the Anglo tradition. There’s a natural conflict at the heart of sci-fi, or at least as it's been traditionally constructed in this country, between hard and soft, typified for a thumbnail as the conflict between technical exposition and storytelling license. It’s not even an unhealthy conflict, is the thing - it’s central to the idea. It’s all fantasy, is my point - whether someone has sat down and done the math for rocket trajectories and fuel burn, or put magic portals in the side of caves for the ease of moving characters from one exotic set piece to another. If you’re writing about it in a book it’s all equally plausible. That is, all equally diddly squat.
Does this all seem besides the point? Shouldn’t I be talking about, like, Peter Max at least? The fantastic late '60s visual vocabulary? Well, see, that’s just the thing - what really stuck out to me, rolling over the matter in my thoughts, was this question of just what Caza is showing us here. Is Caza drawing a vision of the future or the present? Is that a tendentious distinction? Sci-fi can and often does both. Caza’s style, the dizzying virtuoso panoply of style on display with the turn of every page, seems in 2022 still quite fresh despite also being very much of its time. As fantastic and outré as these pages were and still appear this was a nonetheless a very commercial style for the time. Yellow Submarine was 1968. You see bits and pieces of this stuff in the work of Terry Gilliam or Ralph Steadman - like, f’rinstance, the giant shoes set against a background of stark flat parallel lines. Who did that first? It was a fecund time! A number of talented illustrators across the world were coming up with interesting and novel solutions to the same aesthetic conditions.
A galaxy away from the aforementioned Jean-Claude Forest’s louche brushstrokes, despite the similarities of their thema, the sleek industrial precision of Caza appears at times too perfect for human hands. I appreciate the process samples in the back of the book, it’s reassuring to see a fair amount of white-out slathered across the page. Have you ever seen a Lichtenstein up close? Hey, hey, sit down, don’t leave... I’m going somewhere, promise! Anyway. Take the opportunity if you have the chance, you always learn something from seeing a canvas on the wall as opposed to a picture on a page. Monet is much more pastel in person than any reproduction can betray. After decades of seeing Lichtenstein in books it’s quite an education to see one in person. Similarly with Warhol, the work is designed to look slick in reproduction but close up betrays the scars of being an actual physical artifact made with human hands. In person you can see precisely how much skill Lichtenstein brought to bear, and it was not insignificant. Reproducing the sheen of commercial art by hand is hard.
But you’re left with the realization that, for all that skill at mimicry, there’s nothing there. OK, you can steal a line. Every artist steals lines. Hell, every artist steals compositions. But what are you going to do with those pilfered treasures? Are you going to make something new or are you going to shit all over commercial art on your way to the bank? For his faults, Warhol was always busy making something new.
So, hearken back to that pesky Gernsback dichotomy from the beginning of the essay. You’ve got your hard sci-fi and your soft sci-if in all its manifestations—space opera, planetary romance, cosmic horror, what have you—and ne’er the twain shall meet. Right? Well, not really, because that’s not how people approach art! But... it does influence how we receive it. So many future aesthetics are pitiful and drab - utilitarian, then and now. Meta, anyone? It’s all fixated on technology, engineering, the hard sciences - serious stuff! But there are many ways to approach the concept of the future without also invoking question of technology. Caza, for instance, does not see technology as the crux of his future, but design. You know, one of them soft disciplines whose degree programs produce the next generation of DoorDash drivers.
Turns out design is a technology just like any other field, and that is where Caza locates the shock of the next. In the great Gernsback tradition he extrapolates a possible future from the foundations of a present technology.
Now, remember my question from a few paragraphs back, “Is Caza drawing a vision of the future or the present?” Did it seem a meaningful distinction at the time? Perhaps better to say Caza is giving us both. It looks like the state of the art of graphic design ca. 1970. It looks like the Broadway flier for the first run of Hair had a baby with a pile of Victor Moscoso posters. But, tell me: if you could open up a window into the world of two hundred years to come, what do you think you’d see? Well, chances are very good that you might very well see something that looks intensely confusing and possibly even startlingly erotic. It would most certainly flip your wig. How do you possibly portray this unimaginable future? And just why should that future look like the cutting edge of late '60s commercial art?
Well, why not? Mores change, technology changes, language changes. Do you think the future will look like the cutting edge of late '60s commercial art? Probably not. This is a story about sex, I’d argue primarily, though there’s a great deal else. Kris Kool is a story about a future adventurer who caroms through a series of beautiful set pieces while pursuing his objective, someone as capable of solving problems with sex as violence. That’s a tricky type of story to do well. Solving problems with sex is a utopian idea. Many (most?) of that era’s utopian visions of “free love” have not aged gracefully. Not like Joan Didion didn’t have the hippies dead to rights, as far as much of that went! But Caza I think takes seriously the idea of the future as a place that could very well be better than now. An actual future. It would just, you know, look and feel so different as to represent another plane of being entirely. The adventures of its citizens would seem pure sybaritic cotton candy. How else to symbolize that, visually, but by recreating an entire world in the mold of candy-coated psychedelia? It’s among our best languages for the ineffable.
What else do you expect the far future to look like but ineffable fantasia - or at least, what else do you hope? Do you think we’ll be doing math in the future? Gernsback never considered the fact that most people really aren’t that interested in rocketry. They just like the trip. Most people fly commercial and take drugs while doing it. Some of them even fuck in the lavatory.