Just one today - I'm still getting kicked around.

Sunset City

In scouring my brain for a term that can usefully sum up this new AiT/Planet-Lar published graphic novel from Rob Osborne, author of 1000 Steps to World Domination and winner of the 2003 Isotope Award for Excellence in Mini Comics, I keep returning to my only viable option - ‘uneasy.’ This is a curious, short book (80 pages), one that constantly and rapidly wavers between the various tones it employs; at least partially, this seems to be due to the work’s brevity. But it’s no surprise to discover this interview, in which Osborne reveals that he originally conceived the book as a parody, employing blood and thunder Sin City-type elements to the situation of elderly folks inside a retirement community; the story eventually evolved into something else, though I’d say scars are visible from its transformation, and it never entirely leaves such earlier influences behind. And make no mistake - for all its willing engagement with the emotions that come part and parcel with growing old, this tale is ultimately very much still beholden to pulpy climaxes and simplified backdrops. It tries heroically to wrap it all together, but I can still only evaluate it as an uneasy final package.

And unfortunately, I’m probably not equipped to really discuss the work too much further without delving into spoilers, which would ruin a good deal of the work’s pleasure, as there’s admittedly some suspense to derive simply from trying to anticipate exactly which tonal route the author will take next. The basic plot concerns Frank McDonald, resident of the titular affluent ‘senior living’ community (all homeowners must be over 55 years of age) for half a year now, as he attempts to find some sort of purpose for his life following the death of his beloved wife and the subsequent inattentiveness of his grown children. He doesn’t participate in many of the rigorously scheduled community activities, he can’t muster the drive to chat up the nice lady who just moved in next door (she’s taken a shine to him), and most of his conversations are one-sided affairs with his dog. His surroundings can be fairly easily be divided up: there’s the aggressively sunny, vaguely artificial up-with-the-aged environs of Sunset City itself, and then there’s the outside world, a budding hellscape of violence and crime, with the rot occasionally seeping into the controlled parameter, usually via those under the minimum age.

But death is all over Sunset City, and not just due to crime. A woman is barely able to blow out the candles at her 100th birthday party. A man’s heart gives out at a painfully cheery organized water aerobics event. Hearing fades, eyes dim, and everyone knows it, all ‘Geezer Power’ t-shirts aside. This gnaws at Frank, who’s acutely aware that his life is going nowhere in paradise. And then, something happens to wake him up, and set him on a new path. As the back cover notes, “…he takes life by the balls.”

The book is certainly ambitious, probably moreso than its thin size allows; Osborne leans rather heavily on newspaper stories, one or two full pages worth at a time, to carry much of the background info - these selections appear at regular intervals and often serve to flesh out subplots that are summarily wrapped up in seemingly no time at all. Take, for example, the story of one elderly resident’s depressed daughter; the latter character does make a few appearances on panel, and her own journey to self-actualization is plainly meant to parallel Frank’s, but most of the resolution of her story is conveyed through a pair of those newspaper reports, which doesn’t feel to me like much of an elegant way to wrap up such a subplot in a comic, especially given the space here - it just feels like hammering, as if there’s not quite enough pages.

As I’ve alluded to earlier, there’s some darkness in the story, with violence existing alongside more passive deaths and plain old situational comedy. Osborne’s art ably leaps from tone to tone, appealingly etched, with plenty of weathered faces for the characters and the occasional blast of black-heavy establishing shots and home exteriors, just for that added whisper of ill omen. Osborne also cannily acts to relieve the reader’s burden in reading those newspaper selections by immediately preceding or following them with big splashes, creating something of an accordion effect with his pacing. It’s a smart technique to adopt, given the natural difficulties inherent to text-heavy portions of a sequential work.

But it doesn’t really cure the unease that I feel. Maybe it’s because Frank’s ultimate path to some form of self-actualization feels so artificial. Not in every element; you can certainly make the argument that the actions Frank ultimately takes are ‘wrong,’ and they certainly seem to slide into Sunset City’s growing mistrust of the current youthful (and often criminal) incursion, evidenced both in people’s reactions to various criminal acts and their responses to local age ordinances. Indeed, you might even say that Frank ultimately becomes the ultimate manifestation of Sunset City’s true spirit: a force of aged power, determined to drive out the young and actively defend itself. But there are contrivances one must swallow to arrive at such a conclusion; no better example can be found than the event (described via newspaper, naturally) that drives Frank to action, a situation so contrived that characters in the story itself actually comment on the unbelievably of it, to no avail - the scenario effectively saps the power inherent to Frank’s transformation, making it seem at times like little more than black and white cause and effect.

Don’t let me get you too down on this - the book errs on the side of ambition, as I’ve said, and that provides for a more interesting experience than some lazy mediocrity would. But this book probably needed a bit more space, and a more natural means of flowing through its many moods, a way to traverse its maze of sadness and aging and love and death and farce with greater efficiency. As of now, this is an eager, flawed work, but perhaps worth perusing for those interested in charting the continuing development of its talented author.