Compartmentalization: Revolver

Posted by on August 10th, 2010 at 12:01 AM

Matt Kindt; DC/Vertigo;  192 pp., $24.99; Hardcover, Color; ISBN: 978-1401222413

Matt Kindt’s comics work is notable for the way in which it walks a line between genre concerns (frequently bordering on deliberate evocations of nostalgia) and the emotional particularities of alternative comics.  There’s always been a sharpness in concept that manages to distill the essence of the genre in question that Kindt deliberately undermines with the wispy, delicate nature of his brushwork.  Kindt eschews the sort of slickness and pyrotechnics common to genre work through his character design.  Indeed, his almost fragile line gives his work a visceral charge.

This s especially true in Super Spy (Top Shelf), his most complex and ambitious work.  As Kindt was crafting a dizzying array of interlocking narratives using a fractured chronology, he was also relating the quotidian concerns of spies working during wartime.  In 3 Story (Dark Horse), he created a more conventional narrative that focused outside perspectives on the pathos of a single character, once again told through the lens of an espionage tale.  While the modular nature of Super Spy‘s storytelling decisions made it ideal for comics, it’s no surprise that 3 Story was just optioned as a film.  Kindt simplified some of his storytelling in this book even as he used a clever gimmick (a chronological look at a freakishly large man from three different women in his life) to draw in the reader.

In Revolver, a new book from Vertigo’s surprisingly ambitious line of original graphic novels from alt-comics creators, Kindt’s storytelling became even more simplified and direct as he focused in on the thoughts and feelings of a single character.  The book’s hook is irresistible, becomes increasingly irrelevant as themes spool out and then in as Kindt tries to resolve conflicts.

The premise is simple: Sam is a disaffected photographer who hates his job and wakes up after a bender to find that the world is in complete chaos.  Rampant disease, natural disasters and terrorist attacks crop up simultaneously as Sam gets into work.  Looking for his girlfriend, he instead finds his boss, a woman he despises.  He manages to get her out of the building in one piece after killing a jealous ex-boyfriend.  When he finally manages to drift off to sleep, he finds himself waking up in his old world, where everything is normal, he still has a job that he hates and a girlfriend with superficial interests.  When he drifts off to sleep in that world, he flips back into the nightmare world at the stroke of 11:11.

Revolver is really an account of a nervous breakdown or existential crisis writ extremely large on the page.  Living in the nightmare world gives Sam a crazy jolt of adrenaline, as simply surviving becomes his dominant concern.  When he flips back to his normal world, he is grateful for the sanity break, but finds himself unable to relate.  What seems to be problems in his old life feel like ridiculous indulgences in his new life.  While he always felt like his life had no meaning in his old world, its attendant creature comforts prevented him from making a break to do something worthwhile.  In his nightmare world, finding a purpose is the only thing that makes the day-to-day ordeals of mere survival worth living.

At one point, Sam talks about the idea of compartmentalizing, a tactic successful people use to set aside personal problems to attend to particular tasks.  It’s a technique that he’s forced to adopt in the nightmare world for the sheer sake of survival; one must be able to act swiftly and sometimes lethally in order to avoid being killed.  Once again, this technique makes him realize that his inability to do this in his normal world results in total paralysis.  The scenes where Sam is back in his old world but has to restrain himself from simply killing those who got in his way are bracing ones, illustrating the ways in which morality has become such a fluid concept for him that it’s affecting his concept of consensus reality and action.

Kindt lets down the reader a bit by actually tying together the plot in a somewhat contrived manner, hammering the reader over the head with images of a self-help guru who, naturally, not only becomes a “key” character, he also holds the “key” to explaining a lot of what happened to Sam.  Kindt redeems himself by putting Sam in a position where he can choose which world he wants to live in, and the choice he makes is surprising.  The end implies a kind of integrated approach to life for Sam that’s not necessarily a cheerful one.  The one ambiguity that Kindt allows is the possibility that while Sam has a heightened understanding of what it means to strive (and fight) for meaning, the nature of that engagement could still be unflinchingly brutal.

I only wish that Kindt wouldn’t have bothered to try to explain other aspects of the story (like precisely how Sam started flipping), because I didn’t see these details as entirely relevant to the emotional core of the narrative.  Given that he’s writing for a genre publisher, one wonders what kind of notes Kindt received from DC editorial.  While tying up certain elements of the plot felt heavy-handed and distracting, the powerful central ideas of the book, as narrated by Sam, were at least left undisturbed.  Of course, Kindt usually tends to find ways to tie up loose ends in his books, but Revolver didn’t feel like it needed such explanations.  Despite those problems, Revolver‘s unflinching look at the ways in which malaise and apathy can be every bit as personally destructive as a real life disaster made for a bracing, downbeat experience.

All images ©2010 DC Comics

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