King City Vol. 1
“Book One: Cat Master”
Writer/Artist/Cover artist: Brandon Graham
Letters: Lucas Rivera
Editor: Rob Tokar
Price: $9.99 US/$12.50 CAN
Brandon Graham is hardly a newcomer in the comics industry, but King City is the first one of his projects I’ve encountered (unless my memory fails me, which is possible). I sought out this book thanks to a good buzz online, and I quickly discovered its good reputation is well deserved. Though a release from Tokyopop by a U.S. creator, I wouldn’t call this a sample of Amerimanga. Though there are Japanese influences in the plot and characters, there’s a much more European vibe at play, spiced up with American attitude (the good kind). Graham’s peripheral elements read like something out of Warren Ellis’s head, but he also brings a softer, more grounded quality to the characters and sci-fi society that’s attractive and entertaining. King City is a surreal story that incorporates multiple genres while dedicating itself to none. The result is a surprisingly unique and fresh foray into comics storytelling.
It’s been a while since Joe walked the streets of King City. He’s been away, training as an urban, freelance spy. He’s also learned the tricks of the trade of a cat master, as Joe has come into possession of a feline with amazing abilities, activated by injections of mysterious elixirs. Now, he’s returned to his hometown, a place where he left behind the love of his life, Anna, whom he hopes to avoid. His reason for returning is a job — to create a copy of the Key to the City, a master key that will open any lock in the unusual metropolis. As Joe encounters an old friend and fellow underworld odd-job man, Anna struggles with an emotional conflict, her love for her new man, an ex-soldier injured during the infamous zombie war, and her fears about his growing drug addiction.
The influences at play in Graham’s artwork are as varied as the genres he explores in this graphic novel. His art seems inspired in part by underground 1960s comic art, such as that of R. Crumb. Other elements, such as the cat, are distinctly Japanese in appearance. The two female characters are rendered in a style that reminds me of the styles of Argentinean artists Eduardo (100 Bullets) Risso and Leandro (Queen & Country) Fernandez, and the cityscapes and antagonists sometimes put one in mind of the European, sci-fi artwork that’s common in Heavy Metal and the like. Brandon Graham — the United Nations of comics artists. Ultimately, the amalgam of such diverse elements makes for something different, something original. There’s a sharp, urban sense of design at play as well that adds a hip quality and youthful energy to the book.
The more extreme elements of the story — from the impossibly versatile cat to cybernetic gangsters — are thoroughly entertaining and charming. Graham manages to blend edgy ideas with a certain level of cuteness that’s unlike anything I’ve seen before. The way he throws out ideas, even just in passing references, is reminiscent of the sort of manic creativity one expects from Grant Morrison’s writing. Graham boasts an unrestrained imagination that’s tempered with a restrained degree of cynicism and grounded perspective.
King City isn’t easy to sum up with just a simple description; the closest I could come up with is to liken it to Blade Runner and a Kevin Smith movie merged into one odd but engaging story. I have to give Tokyopop credit. The manga publisher is branching out beyond the market for which it is known and has offered Western creators another platform. I’ve never been a big fan of manga, and as a result, I paid little attention to Tokyopop’s output. After reading fare such as King City and Eric Wight’s My Dead Girlfriend, Tokyopop is now standing out as more than a purveyor of translated Japanese comics.
The over-the-top aspects of the story are amusing and even briefly thrilling on occasion, but the quieter moments are those that exhibit the greatest strength. The friendship between Joe and his masked friend Pete is simple and straightforward, and it’s completely believable. The more intimate connections — between Pete and his mermaid charge, and Anna and Max — seem heartfelt, and they help to balance the surreal side of the book. Graham’s vision of a wonderworld of the future is fascinating, but the strong, convincing characterization serves as the real heart of this topsy-turvy tale. 10/10