(yes, I'm gonna go there)



Who knows what you can find lurking around in the nooks and crannies of recent comics past with an eye turned toward current events? Books I’d ordinarily brush over in the bargain bin suddenly become fascinating given my current mental state, nudged and prodded by action in the outside world, or at least the action that’s been classified as ‘important’ by the greater media. Thus, for half price, bringing the toll to $3, did I obtain a copy of the 1993 Vertigo Prestige Format one-shot “Mercy”, written by J.M. DeMatteis and painted by Paul Johnson, with letters by Todd Klein. And while bits and pieces of the story, flawed as they are, resemble contemporary and unavoidable happenings out in the big old world, the reader’s consciousness can’t help but drift to a (possibly imagined) earlier day of experimentation in Big Two comics, not necessarily an age of success or quality but one in which falling on your face out of misplaced ambition was a viable possibility.

Our narrator, Joshua Rose, doesn’t seem likely to ever wake from his coma, seeing as he’s been under for years now, maybe for more than a decade. Much of his time is spent as a free-floating spirit, peeking in on the human world while simultaneously being privy to visions of secret supernatural visitations, the very Forces of the Universe, made into relative flesh. I must say at the outset that Johnson’s art is a good match for this sort of set-up, seeing as how the visual style is ultimately one of straightforward representation as knowingly blurred; from across the room or on a rapid flip-through the inattentive reader might mistake this material for abstraction, but everything is at its core fairly solid and straightforwardly descriptive. There’s plenty of fleckles of paint and scratchy lines and grotesque monster designs (more on that later), but there’s far less substantive visual information presented than, say, David B. would provide in far more exacting detail; what we’re really given is some decidedly typical comic art through a glaze of painted mood, with a yen for filmic multi-exposure type splashes, all easily relatable to the non-stop narration of our bitter hero, grasping the eternal in basic human terms, with only a whiff of the intangible or abstract about it.

Josh is pretty pissed that his wife is keeping him alive, preventing him from just curling up into darkness, escaping the hatred and lies and hypocrisy and disgust and vice and flotsam that truly is the human race. But he’s become distracted in his psychic voyages; he’s become obsessed with a figure he knows as Mercy, originating in a far away zone but incarnated as a lovely young woman (who, it must be said, bears a downright familial resemblance to the title heroine of Alan Moore and J.H. Williams III’s much later “Promethea”). She flits around aiding various people, and Josh both adores and loathes her, deciding that her capricious attentions must be evidence of arrogance, or even cruelty; why not just cure the world, if your intentions are truly pure?! So he follows her around, determined to tear off her kindly mask and expose her as a far more devilish entity than the elements of pain she battles. Quite a bit like Lars von Trier, our Josh is.

We’re treated to three continuing vignettes as the story goes on, as Mercy battles an ooky, Giger-like monster who’s creating strife in a middle-class family, guides a terrified boy through a tribal rite-of-passage in a rainforest, and consoles a lonely old woman in the city. And plainly all of this is intended by DeMatteis as a parable for human concerns, although the execution is quite poor, often lapsing into mawkishness when not tripping over its complicated array of supernatural symbols. For example, take the scary monster that’s tormenting the middle-class family. Let’s say it’s a stand-in for all sorts of typical family concerns (probably an accumulation of assorted concerns), even though the creature is characterized as having one mind, and really hates Mercy. This doesn’t seem to relate to reality in any effective way, even on a symbolic level, unless you take the creature as representing everything Bad, although Mercy takes him out pretty easily, and certainly doesn’t seem to be standing for everything Good herself. And then, after the beast is beaten (by Mercy’s taking its own pain into her body), it’s revealed that the creature is actually the lost, tormented soul of a suicide victim, who is now free to ascend to whatever nondenominational afterlife DeMatteis has in mind. But wait; is he trying to say that bad feelings in the human world are orchestrated by the souls of the dead? I don’t think so, but he’s using the creature as both a symbol and a physical entity in its own right, with the two usages being frankly incompatible without mixing metaphors like vinegar and baking soda. I understand the intent here, but the telling of the tale is deeply confused. The other two stories approach Mercy’s adventures in different ways, with the title heroine allowing the young rainforest denizen to go through his painful and terrifying trial (it‘s for yer own good, kid!) with the promise of comfort later, and sort of standing around and allowing the old woman to help herself; a less proactive semi-deity she is in these stories. I think the point of it all is that Mercy takes many different forms and actions, because she is so vast and tough to understand, which doesn’t stop narrator Josh from trying, with DeMatteis deploying a ton of exclamation points and elaborative/stylish/pretentious use of irregular dialogue punctuation (not to mention tons of parentheses) in the narrator’s speech, making it sound like Josh is performing one of my blog entries as he voyages through eternity.

Ah, but clarification arrives at the end, as Josh realizes that Mercy has been waiting at his bedside the whole time, and that Mercy is actually embodied in his loving wife who’s been mercifully keeping him running for years and years, and thus Josh understands that Mercy is really an aspect of all of humanity (handily explaining her capriciousness though not the tricky bits with the monsters), embodied in acts of compassion. Then he either miraculously wakes up or flatlines; I honestly have no idea, it’s kind of obscured.

But as disappointing as the book is, it put me in a nostalgic mood. And I understand that nostalgia carries a certain danger, a possibility of imagining situations or even a status quo that was never fully present. But damn it, I’m looking around the current Big Two scene and I’m not seeing much room anymore for big, sloppy, metaphorical extravaganzas. Inexpensive deluxe blasts of scattershot metaphysical comment, painted up and ready to roll onto stands. “Mercy” doesn’t succeed, but it tries; it’s utterly earnest, even to a fault, and nakedly genuine in its desire to deliver a complex, positive message through the comics form with the might of a Big Company behind it. And after it drifts down, it sleeps in its Prestige bedclothes to be woken by some curious blogger as the outside world beacons for comment from days just passed.

*Memo From the Synchronicity Department: just as I wrapped up work on this review, I discovered that Rick Gebhardt at Behind the Times had reviewed this very book only two days ago; I guess the zeitgeist has not moved only one blogger in the story’s direction. Check out his review too!