Miniseries Review: The Bulletproof Coffin: DisinterredA comic review article by: Daniel Elkin, Keith Silva
Elkin: Using only a dessert spoon and a Swiss Army Knife, guided only by your Unforgiving Eye® flashlight and your authentic replica British Army compass, sometimes you dig and you dig and you dig a tunnel from one place, perhaps a Toxic Wasteland, to another place, perhaps a graveyard in Nullepart, CA, and, through that process, you travel from one sense of the possibilities of a particular matter, only to find that as you burst from the ground in an act of parturition you have entered a world so wholly outside your ken that the only practical outcome is to literally lose your head.
David Hine and Shaky Kane warn us this will happen in the very first pages of The Bulletproof Coffin: Disinterred #1. They want to prepare you for the journey they are going to take you on in this six-issue series. They know that you are naked, nearly hairless, and you've been digging for a long time.
It is a warning that comes from a place of love.
Reading The Bulletproof Coffin: Disinterred was a journey from one type of understanding of process to something else -- something fluid, something fecund, something thick. This series took me as a reader and a lover of comic books outside of my usual critical sensibility and swaddled me tight in something else.
There was a growth process that reading this series forced me to embrace. I had to become a different type of reader to appreciate what Hine and Kane wanted me to disinter from this work. I had to formulate new questions. I had to find answers in places I wouldn't have thought to look. I had to create meaning from disparate clues seemingly floating in the effluvium.
And this process of apprehending process and purpose has, in a way, left me a stronger reader and a greater appreciator of possibilities of comics.
In the spirit of this, Silva, I'm going to quote you back to yourself. In February of this year, you wrote a review of the trade paperback release of the original The Bulletproof Coffin series. At the end of that piece you said the following:
About his novel, Ulysses, James Joyce wrote: "I've put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that's the only way of insuring one's immortality." You realize that Kane and Hine are bricoleurs and that they've indulged their inner Joyce and filled The Bulletproof Coffin with homages and clues that infest the story without wanking on wistfulness. Hine and Kane have projected a world of their own making, one that you remember and cherish -- a world where comic books become immortal works of art.
I agree with your assessment of the first series. I wax as poetic as you as to what can be said after my initial reading. But what you said here puts quotation marks around my earlier words because it raises the question: can The Bulletproof Coffin: Disinterred be discussed as a solo piece of work or is it just an opportunity to begin to unwrap some of the homages and clues from the first series? Or is this patently the wrong question to be asking right now, and, by asking it am I focused more on the destination than the journey?
Silva: Quote me, Elkin! Not before I quote me. The word I would use is "immersive." Like its predecessor, The Bulletproof Coffin: Disinterred immerses the reader in a construct, a milieu -- as I said -- a projected world. Maybe that's what had your sensibilities at sixes and sevens. Bulletproof Coffin: Disinterred slumps at the shoreline, at the breakers, between "a" reality and something else; it's uncanny. Destination? Journey? Dunno. In country like this best thing to do is go native, let it wash over you. Immerse, Elkin, immerse.
Your choice to begin at the beginning is inspired. Have you ever felt as our naked tunneling friend does in those first few pages of issue #1? Have you ever picked up a dessert spoon, Swiss Army knife, authentic replica British Army Compass and Unforgiving Eye® Flashlight and tried to tunnel your way out? Sorry, Bulletproof Coffin: Disinterred always puts me in an interrogative mood. I'm reminded of a line from Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Cavalier and Clay, "Forget about what you are escaping from. Reserve your anxiety for what you are escaping to."
Leave it to a writer like Hine to concede the past and then piss on that concession: "Don't think I need to shore up that last section, never going to use it again. This is a one way trip." It's not so much that Hine is taking the piss (taking liberties) as much as he's moving on, tunneling out and the devil take the hindmost. It's all the damn subversiveness of the thing that makes it so anxiety inducing -- Hine and Kane are perennial expectation deflectors, subversives of subversions. So, where does it all lead?
When that dessert spoon digs into the void, one would expect to see a familiar face follow its progress, a character from "that last section," but it doesn't and yet it does. Presume to exhume. The Unforgiving Eye, spade in hand, perches at the grave's mouth undoing work that has already been done. Our naked mole friend says: "Looks like I'm not the only one digging the graveyard scene. This is the place all right." As a reader (and Bulletproof Coffin aficionado) I dig this graveyard scene too, grooving on it with pick and shovel only to get my head handed to me or, to be more specific, disintegrated by a "high-powered laser weapon." The Bulletproof Coffin: Disinterred is a series of "just-when-you-think" moments -- it's unsettling and I think that's the point. Hine and Kane don't want to repeat themselves, they want only to pick at the corpse a bit. What they are after, like that British Army Compass, is to make The Bulletproof Coffin: Disinterred into an "authentic replica." As Detective Sartre uncovers the facts about the Full Moon murders, he comes to the conclusion that the trick is to spot the fake, the dodge, the gull… the facsimile. The question is: what to do once that information is at hand?
Since you brought up "enigmas and puzzles," a nod and a wink goes to the name on the cigar box that Sartre keeps hidden in his desk drawer: "J King K Cigars." The authentic hidden within the print. It's an ineffable and blink-and-you-miss-it moment like this that makes Hine and Kane's work delight and frustrate at the same time. At some point doesn't the reader want to know what's real, what's the truth, what's behind the pasteboard mask? Maybe this is the tight swaddle, that "something else" you experienced when you began to read the series … that there is no truth, only subversions of subversions and that kind of thing is as unsettling as it is uncanny.
Put another way, maybe The Bulletproof Coffin: Disinterred posits another reality, another projection, a world of "what could be," a place where you and your red-haired, buxom, bullet-chested partner in crime-fighting become lovers and crush communists. A world that breaks out of capes and cowls and shines a shield of justice onto what comic books can be because that is what they once were; acts of extreme creation, boundless, not tied to story arcs or continuity; one-shots, standalones of otherness. Exhume the corpse of comic book's past, carry the fire and progress, progress, progress. But let's not be too serious because that will only get you shot in the face. Elkin?
Elkin: Sometimes, Silva, a shot in the face is exactly what we need. It is so easy to become complacent, to become lazy in our thinking, to define and label and box and construct a priori while ignoring what is actually in our hand -- especially with art where sometimes what has been created is so outside our experience that we must indolently rely heavily on our intellectual past to make sense of the present or else go mad in the face of incomprehensibility.
In The Bulletproof Coffin: Disinterred we do seem to be dealing with a version of "subversions of subversions" as you so wisely pointed out. Hine and Kane have something new to posit. They hate you for taking it easy. They demand that you work, and from that work they expect you to grow. Easy is static; creation is dynamic.
It is only in this, perhaps, at least for Hine and Kane, that we can leap intellectually anew.
Take, for example, the Tuesday night story telling at The Jumping Jive Joint in The Bulletproof Coffin: Disinterred #2 as a springboard. Here the theme is "Love and Mutilation" and "though the stories may be kooky, every one is as honest as Abe Lincoln … solid gospel." Here we come together to witness a sharing of tales, set to swing, where each story combines sexuality and mutilation, each governed by a multifaceted jewel fashioned from an asteroid, each told on the night of a lunar flare ("signs and portents, pal"), all pointing to the act of creating.
But for Hine and Kane, the act of creating only comes from an act of destruction, covered in blood, something lost for something gained -- the act of moving from one conception to something new is violent at its heart, horrific in its telling. Life and death, renewal, process, art. Hine sets the framework, Kane completes the moment, it is for the reader to then disinter.
It requires work. It requires effort. It requires action.
Why must they do this to us, Silva? Aren't we so easily content to lay in our Bulletproof Coffin, undisturbed by the things that make us uncomfortable, blissful in our constructs of how the world spins, keen and strong with our smug belly rubbing and deft beard stroking? Why must these artists assault us so?
Silva: Ah, Elkin, "the strange appetites lust engenders." Comic books are the outsider experience. Here is a knife of the finest Sheffield steel, let us swear a blood oath not to forget that before the accountants choked the multiplexes with amazing and avenging computer-generated gee-gaws, these same heroes were gestated in the minds of madcap artistic savants and shit-slingers backed by pornographers, bootleggers and every stripe of hustler. Hine and Kane show us the comic book's seedy and obscene past -- a quasi-hop-head-beat-Christmas Carol set to a soundtrack of atonal jazz. It does a body good to venture beyond the priori walls, get Gotham behind thee, put Metropolis in the rear-view, and turn your back on the 616, no?
Let us talk process. Creation from destruction, huh? I dig daddy-o, but I'm looking at the flipside of that record. I see with my unforgiving eye a determined dissection in all of this here destruction. Hine and Kane are anatomists, amalgamators and aggregators of the highest order, bricoleurs of cool to borrow a phrase. You do not suggest, nor do I think they are like poor Uncle Gaston with hands (or feet) of clay. Hine and Kane act the hack, deign as duffers, but it's a put-on, another feint to put you off the scent, a shot of Visine to the eyes, breath mints and Binaca. Creators, yes, most definitely yes, and artists too, no doubt, but Hine and Kane are "makers" as well; DIY Dr. Frankensteins on a "mission from God" to repurpose what is already (nearly) gone or forgotten, eldritch lore, say, from more Entertaining Comics. The Bulletproof Coffin: Disinterred #2 is a twilit place on the outer limits of the mainstream, familiar-enough and so hyper-aware as to shake something out of the reader. But what?
You write of "work," "effort" and "action." I read "mania," "brio" and "inspiration." When you offered me an invitation to write about this series, I accepted because I wanted to see where we would go; you're right, Hine and Kane can only take us so far, we have to (we must) do the work. The Bulletproof Coffin: Disinterred makes me want to write, makes me want to (re)create and infest others with my verve for this work. Hine and Kane inspire me to action. Few entertainments can say as much. Isn't that why we sit here anchored to our laptops, banging away, creating critical worlds, only to smash them flat and start over again? To get out what we mean to say, to charge Elkin to make Silva a better writer, and vice versa? It's like Pete Townsend says, never spend your guitar or your pen.
You write: "Hine sets the framework, Kane completes the moment." Let's set the framer beside (beHine?) for a moment. Talk to me of Kane. Is his art purposefully retro or stylized to the point of distraction? The primary colors especially the pea green of Uncle Gaston's attic and the deep nighttime blues of apartments and bedrooms that he uses in issue #2 are bang on. Like the series itself, there is no middle ground when it comes to Kane's art. Love it or hate it, it's a singularity in cities of simulacra. Inspire me, Elkin. Make me work.
Elkin: Aw, shit-rickies, Silva -- I thought you were making me work. And you are. But not as hard as Kane and Hine do. And they do (be-do-be-do).
I knew you were going to get into this whole art business. You would be hard pressed to talk about The Bulletproof Coffin without talking about the art. It's like talking about an orange without talking about the peel ("A man is not a piece of fruit!" - Willy Loman). Would this series be what it is if it were not for the odd squiggly hand of Shaky Kane? Would this comic be something else were it not for his color palette?
I don't even want to consider answering these questions for fear of plunging myself into another dimension, and god knows I'm having enough issues dealing with this one.
So let's talk about what we got, the art of Shaky Kane.
Kane's art comes into the forefront in issues 4 and 5 of this series, because in these issues what has been passing as a narrative breaks down even further. Issue 4 is the famous "84" issue, "a new non-linear narrative that has slipped across the borders from some parallel existence." Here's a comic book purportedly part of a larger series (it's issue 4 of 6 -- it says so on the cover), an integral part of a larger story, that now follows its own beat, taking cues from Brion Gysin and William Burroughs -- randomly arranged to "transcend its prosaic starting point." Balls. Issue 5 of The Bulletproof Coffin: Disinterred is told using a "recreation of art from the original set of 'Hateful Dead' bubblegum cards." What we have in this issue, the penultimate issue of the series I might add, are 25 splash pages with 4-6 sentences running underneath. Double balls.
As traditional narrative structure is inverted in these issues, the reader has to work even harder to build up his or her sense making self. So he or she, flailing wildly in this chaotic juice, clings desperately to the images. But what images are there to moor this poor floundering vessel buffeted so heavily by this juice? Kane's images are there. A parade of grotesques -- a paean of violence -- a litany of the bizarre -- all of it thrust into your eyes like a well-sharpened stick as it leaps from backgrounds of solid yellows and reds and blacks and blues.
There is nothing subtle in presentation. But its luridness masks an enormity of intent. Each image is filled with enough choices to fill a department store (the kind that... you know... sells choices...). Given the time, enough caffeine, and little to no care for personal hygiene, I could probably write 5,000 words on the first four panels on page one of issue 4 alone.
Say what you will about Kane's style or palette or choices -- the dude's got chops and patience and smarts. For me, he is the perfect artist for what they are trying to do here. Remember, Silva, when you called them "perennial expectation deflectors, subversives of subversions"? Well, Kane's art? That's what that looks like.
Silva: I ask. You answer. So, allow me to riposte. Yes. Wicked. Wanton. Vulgar. And that's only the preview image for the next (and final) issue, "Kiss the Clown." Crazy Clown Time, indeed. Ye gods! Kane is like (and better than) a poke in the eye with a sharp stick or a sharpened bamboo pole for that matter. Again, I come back to the word "singular." Similar, I suppose, to Tom Scioli (the two, I would hazard, have forgotten more about Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko than I'll ever know), although Kane's work is less reverent, more primal, perhaps, more of a distillation of "the old masters." You're right; of course, it's those undressed backgrounds that make the images pop like the sound a socket makes as its prize is rent by the Harvester of Eyes, itself.
The episodes of the 'Hateful Dead' in The Bulletproof Coffin were my least favorite. Like 'Burn Unit,' I'm fried when it comes to zombies. In a story that was so inventive and so eccentric, the 'Hateful Dead' came off as pedestrian, a narrative dead-end. To my surprise, The Bulletproof Coffin: Disinterred fleshed-out (groan) these Charlie-finding-Charlie-killing-Charlie-eating automatons and made them, somehow, more human than human. In part, I have you, Elkin, to thank for resurrection of my interest in said dead. Your enthusiasm for BC:D #5 got me to check it out, give it a second-chance, a second-life so to speak. Hine and Kane's work here is often so peculiar and so radical and they are such lords of misrule that nothing is ever scared -- not even their own work. I'm willing to bet that each would make much sport of the phrase, "protect the brand." Again, subversives of subversion.
You mention Burroughs and Gysin and the fractured quality of issues 4 and 5. There is definitely and "arts and crafts" characteristic to each of these issues, especially #4, the (so-called) cut-up issue. It hit me, like a smack upside my dome, that for all the narrative fuckery and splintering going on, this is a series of origin issues, the title of which, "Before Bulletproof Coffin" could be applied and would be apt. I'm a recovering comic book origin addict and although one too many superhero summer blockbusters did cure me of my dependence, I know I could backslide at any moment. An origin is supposed to tie up loose ends, to disinter what was hidden, but it's a "terminal" progression, innit? I mean, once the curtain pulls back, reveals Vader's your father (Spoiler!) or that your real parents are dead alien scientists there's little ground left to tread -- unless one wants to "reimagine," in which case those iterations are innumerable, but I digress. One can get so "lost" in one's own mythos that one's own head permanently adheres to one's own ass, an inverse and a "questioning" ouroboros. Hine and Kane dig up the dirt on the denizens of The Bulletproof Coffin, but they take (and give) what they need and they move on. Let the (hateful) dead bury the dead.
One last backwards glance before I move on. Hine and Kane are not penetrating any virgin flesh here with either the layout or the look of The Bulletproof Coffin: Disinterred #5. Again, they repurpose, they reorder a previous pre-code idea to fit their own design. For me, it's a skeletal tap on the shoulder, a reminder of the matchless potential that rests within the form of sequential art; if only it gets wrest out by the Hines and Kanes of the world; and, only, if we, the consumers, call forth these horrors from beyond the stars. Or, perhaps, it is for the best that the "Hateful Dead" remain on the other side within their ruined "city that is all too familiar." Perhaps…
Elkin: Perhaps? Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps. Silva, you can have your CAKE and eat it, too.
But "perhaps", is, perhaps, the word that best describes what this whole thing is all about. Perhaps. What Kane and Hine are doing throughout this series is a series of perhaps(es). You mention origins -- perhaps this is the intent. I struggle to create meaning -- perhaps this is the intent. Together we reach for words to describe the indecipherable -- perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.
Then again, perhaps, it all boils down to a sense of play.
Perhaps issue #3 of The Bulletproof Coffin: Disinterred is actually what is the Vinz Clortho to our Zuul. Is this all just the rich imaginative play world of a pudgy bowl-haired young boy with both sex and family issues that, perhaps, through the influence of the mystical powers of a magic meteorite, somehow seeps into "a" reality and absorbs even the creators in its game?
But dammit -- there I go trying to make sense of this whole thing based on comfortable tropes bred from reading too many Bronze Age Comics while selfishly bingeing on Cocoa and Ho-Hos in my suburban Dallas ranch home. Once again I find myself relying on my sensibilities in order to disinter.
I'm floundering here, Silva. I left my chops at the butcher shop. Lead me, guide me, help me.
Silva: You're not floundering at all. For better (or worse?) you're in it … that disorienting feeling you're feeling, I think, that's one of the pleasures and pains of reading this series. A bit of mystery and ambiguity cleanses even as it confounds. Remember, immerse. BC:D is a tough nut to crack, not to mention a real ball buster. It doesn't fit into any category (which is what I like about it so much). It's a disruptive little fucker that slips away from you once you think you've set the most tentative of hands upon it. Maybe you (we) are looking for connections that aren't there, but only appear to be. That "meteor shit" -- to quote Stephen King's Creepshow alter ego, Jordy Verrill -- allows for some kind of connective tissue, but I think it's the reddest of red herrings. Another thing that I'm feeling (and maybe you are too) is that because these are standalone issues they literally, figuratively, and every other kind of "ly" word stand apart from one another and from everything else; they're goofy, they're serious, they're gross, they're funny all at the same time. How many comic books at least try to hold such disparate strands together? BC:D falls apart, comes together and then falls apart again and again and again, it's tiresome, yes, but there's something going on in all that cacophony, all that noise. What, I don't know which is why I think you're so close. Maybe, and this is the scaredy-cat's calling card, the lazy man's straw man: it's not supposed to make sense. Why should it? I like order as much as the next dude, but messiness, like it or not, makes life worth living ... somebody's got to straighten crooked pictures in hotel rooms, after all. Here's hoping the final nail in (out?) The Bulletproof Coffin: Disinterred provides some perspective and maybe even some closure. Yeah, sure.
Elkin: Thanks for talking me through this, Silva. You're a good man, and I wish you had been around when I was at the Julian Cope concert back in 1988.
The idea, though, that I've invested all this time (and words) into something that purposefully doesn't make any sense absolutely sends electrical shudders through my brain.
That can't be possible. That's abject cruelty. You ask "Why should it make sense?" It should make sense because... well, I'm not sure I have an answer to this actually.
Shit! What is happening to me? Is this the immersion that you were talking about? Have Hine and Kane just released this assault to unglue our sensibilities, to disinter those emotions we keep clamped tightly by our Freudian Ego, to let loose our ties while we put on the beads and finally "see the reality, man"? Read The Bulletproof Coffin: Disinterred then tune in, turn on, and.... what? What's next?
BULLETPROOF COFFIN: DISINTERRED SERIES REVIEW -- THE SCREENPLAY
INT. FUNERAL PARLOR VIEWING ROOM
An open coffin is placed at the far end of the room. Perpendicular to the coffin, but at an angle is an easel holding a poster of the cover image to The Bulletproof Coffin: Disinterred #6. Two men are arranging straight-backed faux leather covered banquet chairs for a viewing.
ELKIN, shaved head, goatee, and glasses, wears bright primary red colored corduroy jacket, with an ornate rooster pin in the lapel. He looks like a high-school English teacher. He is easy-going, but slightly on edge.
SILVA, six-feet tall and gawky, long arms and legs. He wears black Nike sneakers with a red swoosh, blue jeans and a blue short-sleeve shirt with the words: "I Drink Your Milkshake" written in old English script across the front. He is fastidious in his work, making adjustments, checking and double-checking to make sure the chairs are arranged in a way only he seems to know or notice.
(looking at the poster)
That cover … I'm going to have nightmares for months. I'd rather talk about what Amelia finds in the Kiss's basement. And I DON'T want to talk at all about what she finds down there. In the basement. Trap doors. Locked rooms. I've never liked clowns. Coulrophobia, it's called, you know, fear of clowns. Leave it to Kane to fuck with my head.
This whole series fucks with my head. I don't know how to make sense of it. To parse it. Where's the hook? Who am I supposed to be following? I can handle unconventional. I can do oddball, but this is something else.
I know. It's great! Not one issue, not a one (or a five) prepares you for what comes next. I'm all for randomness, but I'm glad to let the Bulletproof Coffin mellow a bit. One minute, a murder conspiracy (maybe) the next a jazz club, cards and cut-ups. I thought I had seen everything and then, issue #6. Who thinks this kind of shit up? Really? Black rain, a guy with his mouth sewn shut who speaks through dolls? That basement. Kane and Hine outdid themselves on this one. Man! Those cats can wail.
What's so wrong with order? Telling a story. Why all the obfuscation? I can dig it, but it makes for a bugger of thing to try to write about. I think I need more than this non-repeating post-post-modern, interpretation all the way done randomness.
Two young girls (ages three and eight) run into the room and between the rows of chairs chasing after one another. SILVA looks up momentarily distracted as they run out of the room again. He turns back to Elkin and goes back to work.
Keeping the world strange… all I'm saying.
Planetary! Planetary! Don't you blaspheme in here! You're not pullin' no
Planetary on me are you, Silva? I was reading Planetary while you were hanging out in your fancy east-coast ivory tower graduate school classes, navel-gazing, staring into the middle-distance thinking, who would win a punch-up, the deconstructionists or the new critics!
Hey, what's all this noise?
SACKS enters. He is a kind-looking gentleman, distinguished, mid-forties, avuncular. He is ELKIN and SILVA's boss. Behind Sacks, stands a much younger man tapping away at a smartphone he holds in both hands. This is DJELJOSEVIC, he does not talk. He is the personification of detached early-twenties cool.
Are you two almost finished? You know, you've got other work to do.
Carry on, gentleman.
SACKS and DJELJOSEVIC leave. ELKIN holding a chair under each arm as SILVA, straightens a chair, moving it micrometers with his fingertips. ELKIN sets the chairs down.
(not looking at Elkin, focused on a row of chairs)
All I'm saying is Bulletproof Coffin: Disinterred is the anti-anodyne, full of switchback loops, bright colors and a warren of rabbit holes. It's what you bring to it, it's like you said, you gotta' work for it, it's work-for-hire escapism. We could probably talk for hours about dreams, the dream-life of the Bulletproof Coffin: Disinterred. It seems a cheat to think, "it was all a dream," but what if it was, a story, a fiction, something made-up?
I'm clowning you, Elkin, but there sure are a lot of dreams, a lot of dreamers. Can you anchor your reality, your understanding in a dream, would you want to? Hine and Kane give you a way out. Deacon's way. Did Deacon find a way out or did Deacon find a way in? Is he the mole or is that some other traveler, on some fool's errand. I'm struck by the pathos in the end, for Nancy, for Clarissa, for Amelia. The subversions are all around in this last issue, the rug is barely under your feet before Hine and Kane are yanking it out from under us again, and again and again.
ELKIN goes to one end of one of the rows and pulls a hidden laptop from beneath one of the chairs. SILVA sits down on the opposite side of the room. Everything is silence. SILVA, has produced his own laptop as well. He begins to type …