It all ties together in the end.

Solo #12

Nothing like a final issue to give an already adventurous book the chance to go as far as it wants, before the old legs give out and the vultures descend. I speak relatively - with its emphasis on individual vision (but never so much that the creator would own their creations), its forays into structural ingenuity (but nothing that would get in the way of a good Batman yarn), its multiplicity of tone and genre (by the standards of DC proper), and its varied spread of visual styles and flavors (by the standards of DC proper), Solo was just advanced enough to qualify as an ‘experiment’ in terms of Big Two comics pamphlets, and possibly outré enough within its particular environs to keep out the big dollars, big time superhero participation or not.

And now it’s dead, dead, dead. Which means, luckily, that it has an opportunity to end.

I don’t even think the Brendan McCarthy issue of Solo was conceptualized as the ‘final’ issue, given the length of time it takes to plan these things. But it fills the role flawlessly, in that it pushes everything about the title farther than any other issue has, now that there’s no danger of backlash - the result is easily the most avant-garde comic DC or any of its owned studios has produced since another final issue, Promethea #32. And when we're this far out, there’s not much sense in talking in relative terms; the last Promethea was a dazzling art construct period, and this last burst of Solo is genuinely unlike much of anything else at the moment.

Actually, the first thing I thought of upon closing the book is how McCarthy - a much-adored comics talent of titles like Skin, and Rogan Gosh, who’s been away from the art for over a decade - seems to have picked up on a very clever means of exploiting Solo’s unique-for-DC positioning in the comics market: he utilizes a library of extant properties for iconic value, rather than creating straightforward new adventures for their straightforward incarnations. When a piece of standalone art could use, say, a vintage image of Superman clutching his head and muttering “has come a blight which is to cause by doom!” virtually any other artist would be on shaky legal ground in pasting in that actual Super-image - but not McCarthy, not here, because he has access to the real Superman. Want to have a Krypto-like Super-Mutt pop in for a cameo (and a quick We3 reference)? McCarthy just uses the real Krypto, because he can. Hell, it even works backwards: many creators utilize barely-altered analogues of popular superheroes in their stories to tap some iconic value from the histories of those characters, but here McCarthy creates an entirely new character, and calls him ‘The Flash’ and ‘Barry Allen,’ for much the same reason, even though the character is but a player in McCarthy's vast game of personal images and themes.

In other words, if they’re going to take everything you create for their own, after all, you might as well bite into the stuff they already own, and McCarthy realizes this quirk of going work-for-hire in a place where no continuity need be respected, and he does more with it than anyone else.

Which isn’t to say this issue is a total departure. There’s a nice, neat table of contents in the front, indicating the presence of five stories and a framing sequence. Like Howard Chaykin and Darwyn Cooke before him, McCarthy approaches his issue as a single work, with multiple segments adding up to a planned-out whole. Batman shows up for a story, just like in most issues. But the execution absolutely sets the book apart.

The five stories are, shall we say, prone to getting off-topic, enough so that they often transform into entirely different stories, nearly all of which are connected to some other story in the book by either characters or images (watch for those crossed clouds). The main stories are bordered at their ends by bunches of one-page artworks, gags, visual poems, collages, many of which serve to comment on something else in the issue. Even the obligatory two-page ‘Making Of’ feature, consisting of abandoned story ideas and concept drawings, manages to fit into the whole in both an aesthetic and even plot-sensitive manner. Everything in this book is hyperlinked via the database of McCarthy’s imagination. Click on the Flash’s ring, and see how it pops up elsewhere in the issue to signify wandering, lost folk. Type ‘war anxiety’ into the search engine, and get a bunch of hits to pages featuring explicit and implicit explorations of the topic: one-page poems regarding hipsters waking up to change the world, stories about never-ending struggle, the final massage of the book - McCarthy has had 13 years to cook all this up, so he might as well link it together.

It goes a bit like this in practice. We see one of the five main stories, the four-page The Flash: A Fragment (written by Jono Howard). It’s about Barry Allen reimagined as an interdimensional fugitive guided by the voice of his dead wife Iris. He walks along a beach of comic books with holes in their centers (this will be resolved later, outside the story). He wears the Flash ring, actually a dimension-hopping String Ring (as I’ve said before, a most appropriate recurring accessory for wanderers). He is pursued by Void Creatures (who will show up all throughout the book as symbols of menace). He finds a small house, and witnesses his own death (we’ll see an arguably more important ‘death’ later). He ends the story by leaping into a new dimension (travel between realities is everywhere in here).

The next thing we see is a one-page image, a faux opening splash page to a story that never happens, of another Void Creature-like thing called Sigurette. The page is signed to the artist ‘Ditranko’ (McCarthy drops many more references to visual faves throughout the book, from Curt Swan to Frank Quitely). Next up is a one-page skit involving Toby, a man with large breasts and platinum blonde hair, who is downloading another Ditranko page off the internet (comics piracy!). He apologizes for being unable to participate in the rest of the comic, where “They find a lost tomb and such, and what the real truth is, about what’s been going on in the world today” (this actually happens later) and concludes: “But I honestly don’t care, me. Just as long as I go out nice and peaceful like, then I don’t mind… I bet you’re the same, luv. Aren’t cha?” More anxiety.

We then get another Ditranko page (who, truth be told, also signed the Flash story, and dated it 1906), depicting someone called Maniac 6 and his sidekick Lad Lass - Maniac 8 is hot for Saturn Girl (who’ll show up later in an important capacity). We then see a one-page mixed-media piece depicting a Saturn Girl issue of Adventure Comics (#321) sitting in a brown bag with a window cut out to show only Saturn Girl’s face. Sketches surround the bag (“Reverso Bagism” is the title - not the last music reference), including one of a man shaking an advanced gun and remarking “A swallow is trapped inside the roof of your mouth.” That leads into the next main story, an eight-pager about the man holding the gun, one Johnny Sorrow (written by Tom O’Connor), yet another entirely different version of a DC property.

That’s eight pages of this 48-page book. The entire affair is like that. Connections, references, relations back. There’s a good variety of style to it all - for example, Johnny Sorrow stands out in the book as a totally straightforward superhero adventure, though really the chapter-plucked-from-a-serial feel of it is more 2000 AD than any US source. It also boasts a searing, garish neon color scheme, which stands in contrast to the looser, more poppy Flash art, or the half-stylized, half-vintage look of the Batman story (titled simply Batman, written by Robbie Morrison, featuring co-artist Sir Trevor Goring of Waterloo Sunset, also a music reference, of course), which is actually a story about a young man teaming up with an elderly comics artist to create the Batman story of his dreams (literally), which contains a few symbols from elsewhere in the book, in the same way that ‘dreaming’ itself is an important motif.

Seriously, this could go on all day. The book is this rich with sheer stuff. I haven’t even gotten into the other two main stories, Duke Hussy, about a surreal comics fan and the new title he learns to loathe (fiction v. reality - another key theme), or Slouch World, the grand finale that starts out as a slice-of-life and mutates into a conclusion for the whole book, with most of the cast reappearing (not Toby, though), a vital corpse being unearthed (check his headgear and what’s on his finger), and the truth behind reality itself being revealed. The framing sequence provides a somber coda, shaking its head over a colorful world like ours that never matches up in reality to the beautiful things that humans can create.

"Going here, going there, I thought I was the one who drove me. I thought I was the driver in the vehicle of my story. But I never found the driver. There was no one at the wheel. There is no one at the wheel, and there never was."

Words from a very important character near the end of the book. It's extremely important that McCarthy turns inward so much in this book, to his own searchable reference library of interests and visual cues, since the message of his story is that all we really have is what we create for ourselves in a chaotic world, one that can't care for us unless we find our own dimensions apart from it.

It's a chaotic world in the Direct Market too, though a bunch of people cared about Solo. This concluding cry against the hard world is too appropriate for the end. But this is also too good an issue (if not the best, then close) to leave you with a sense of resignation. You won't curse the world for robbing you of the book just yet, and you won't be lamenting the loss of glimpses into future personal worlds like McCarthy's today. You'll only be clasping your hands in thanks that the series made it this far, because it still managed to give you something like this.