GutterGeek Review: THE BULLETPROOF COFFIN

Posted by on June 29th, 2010 at 7:20 PM

David Hine and Shaky Kane, The Bulletproof Coffin #1 (Image Comics, 2010). Six-issue miniseries, $3.99 per issue.

The Bulletproof Coffin, one of Image Comics’ impressive new batch of indie-flavored comic book miniseries, is a book that practically begs you to ask “What the hell was that?” when you’ve finished it. It’s familiar in many ways (especially to longtime comics readers), but Hine and Kane stitch together recognizable tropes in ways that make reading the book a new and unsettling experience. Packed with metatextual self-referentiality and comics industry in-jokes, it’s a series with an even risk-to-reward ratio that could satisfy comics insiders while at the same time sending new readers running for their capes and tights. Or it could pull in new readers while making comics folks scream their heads off. Many possible combinations here. Whatever the case, it’s one of most puzzling and unique books I’ve read this year.

The Bulletproof Coffin is the story of a man named Steve Newman, a “voids contractor” who cleans out the houses of the recently deceased. Steve’s also a collector of 1950s and 60s pop ephemera, so his job—while morbid—is also a great way to decorate his attic man-cave at home. Steve has a family, but (in true Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime” fashion) he seems to know less and less about them every day:

Becoming more detached from real life and more entrenched in the fantasy world of his collectibles, Steve’s tenuous balance gets completely tilted when he’s hired to clean out a gothic house that’s equal parts Psycho mansion, House of Usher, and House of Mystery. The metal door handle to the house is cast in the shape of a fly, and things get even weirder when Steve goes inside. He finds a slot-machine television, various sci-fi dolls and statues, and—strangest of all—a stash of comics that shouldn’t exist:

The “Golden Nugget” books are based on the Mighty Comics Group (later known as Red Circle Comics) line launched by Archie Comics in the 1960s. The Mighty superhero group included characters such as the Fly, the Shield, the Jaguar, the Comet, and Black Hood—several of which were created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. In the fictionalized version of these books used in The Bulletproof Coffin, Hine and Kane substitute themselves for Simon, Kirby, and any number of other comics creators from the 60s who wrote over-the-top (and occasionally subversive) superhero fare—guys like Steve Ditko, Wally Wood, and the rest of the Witzend crew.

This is all getting too complicated and meta, but it didn’t feel that way as I was reading the book. The inside/outside frame narrative is complex and the narrative twists are surprising, but the story is accessible enough that it pulls more than it pushes. It’s not written completely as an in-joke for comics readers; it’s also a good introduction to the color and complexity of modern graphic narrative for non-comics readers. It’s not purely postmodern pap, but that’s there too if that’s what you’re looking for. Hine’s writing is inspired and inventive here. He crafts this story like a labyrinth touched up with mirrors and windows and creatures waiting in the shadows. It’s funny at times, but it’s also creepy as hell.

Shaky Kane (British artist Michael Coulthard) provides a visual complexity that matches the narrative layers of Hine’s story. His layouts are simple, but this makes sense given the 60s throwback pastiche that he and Hine are creating. Kane is often compared to Jack Kirby, but his rigid, bulky rendering style in The Bulletproof Coffin is a blend of Mike Allred (Madman), Mike Judge (King of the Hill), and Brendan McCarthy (straight psychedelic madness). Kane’s use of color is also distinctive and smart. The pastel palette he uses in the segments set in Steve’s “real” life presents a sharp contrast to the dark, shadowed palette he uses for the eight-page Mysterious Eye story (a Tales from the Crypt send-up) in the middle of the book.

The Bulletproof Coffin is ultimately a book of contrasts and contradictions—a story that straddles fiction and reality, homage and satire, comedy and horror. This should work to its benefit, as it offers something more textured and nuanced than what you’re getting just about anywhere else. The $3.99 price tag is a bit steep, but the backup features (fictionalized pseudo-biography, fake ads, and cut-outs familiar to readers of Alan Moore and Chris Ware) add a value that make the price tag more palatable. It’s safe to predict that this book is destined to achieve cult-favorite status. I just hope that the nuance and insiders’ nods aren’t seen as too clever by half by readers who, frustrated and irritated, abandon it as hipster schlock too soon. Because it’s not. Hipster books that are keenly aware of their own hipsterism piss me off too, but that’s not what Hine and Kane are up to here. This story is more substantive than its jokes and allusions suggest at first. This is a smart, swank book that actually seems to want to say something. It’s going to take some time to figure out what that something is, but it’ll be worth the time it takes to get there.

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