Patriot Blues

*Wow! I watched things explode at the ballpark today! And then I spent - no joke - one hour and fifteen minutes on my twenty minute drive home, because the traffic was that swell. Thank goodness they played the Hulk Hogan theme during the action because then I had something powerful to run through my mind while inadvertently huffing exhaust fumes. America!

*My second favorite comic of the moment (I wrote of my first, Measles #2, a few days ago): The Puma Blues #18. I just finished reading the entire run, actually, and I get the feeling I’m going to have to read each storyline again individually to get the most out of the series (certainly I’ll do that before I write about it in greater depth than here). From reading around online I get the feeling that The Puma Blues has become fairly obscure with the passage of time, yet has attained a certain luster of age among those who can still recall it. It’s easy to see why, as the 23-issue series (plus a minicomic that I don’t have), which ran from 1986-88, is just so damn odd, so ‘screw the market, we do what we want in here’ individual that many who were there at the time (not that there were ever many of them - for the first eight or so issues the circulation numbers were actually printed on the inside front cover, and I don’t believe there was ever a jump above 20,000 copies of any issue save for the first, which went through two printings) can’t help but love the screwy thing, warts and all.

And there are indeed warts - being the first comics series for both writer Steve Murphy (now a Managing Editor at Mirage Publishing, also currently scripting the Image miniseries Umbra) and artist Michael Zulli (of several different projects, his work on The Sandman probably the most visible today), one would almost have to expect to encounter some bumps, but The Puma Blues exudes a particularly potent perfume of ideas being revised and concepts updated as the series progresses, storytelling approaches twisting and curving on a monthly basis. And yes, it did come out largely month-by-month, even with Zulli’s artwork becoming increasingly elaborate and detailed, which must have made it a queer regular visitor on the stands of the day, though such regularity may have enhanced its appeal to the devout as a constant hit of information and oddity.

Not that it was all that odd starting out, though surely out to the fringe as compared to many Direct Market selections. The first few issues are fairly typical in plot movement, kissed with casual violence, grim near-future sci-fi, and plenty of purplish narrative captions reminiscent to me of Alan Moore’s early issues of Swamp Thing (although someone in the letters column brings up Chris Claremont). But soon enough plot progression is sent to the back of the vehicle for a long nap as contemplative character moments and sundry narrative techniques are given intense primacy; one issue consists of very nearly nothing but animals romping through the wild to the accompaniment of tightly-arranged sound effects, and reams of pages are devoted to the main character’s viewing of videotapes on television. At one point in a certain issue, a conversation between characters simply stops, only to be replaced with another character dramatically narrating a stretch of that same ongoing conversation for us, whilst mimicking the movements of a nearby aquatic beastie. That’s just the kind of book it is. By the time the second storyline starts, the book has developed into a curious vehicle for oblique philosophic lecture and self-examination, weighty topics floating around as the pages themselves become formally elaborate, each issue nudging the plot and themes a bit further along while acting as a self-contained vial of symbols and structures.

There are flashes of splendor in many of these issues. But perhaps only one of them gets it completely right, and that’s issue #18. At that particular point in the plot, the lead character, an aimless misanthrope, has holed up in a remote cabin and is drinking himself into a stupor while flipping madly through television channels. You see, the world hasn’t been in the best of shape for a while, especially not since that devastating terrorist attack on NYC in the late ‘90s (don’t give the creators too many points for prognostication - the USSR is also still around), and Our Hero is in the military; his assignment is to monitor and maintain a nature preserve that’s home to a strange new breed of flying manta, any specimens of which he’s supposed to zap with a hand-held displacement beam that whisks the creatures away to the US-allied China for scientific study. There’s also the titular puma wandering around (the seething, beaten-down yang to the hopeful evolutionary yin of the mantas), as well as a radical eco-warrior cowboy academic, a humanoid robot on a journey of self-discovery, and possibly some observing space aliens, though their presence is mostly made known through the video creations of Our Hero’s vanished performance artist father, which, as I’ve mentioned, preside over plenty of pages.

All of this might sound a bit silly - because it is - but it’s played with often intense devotion by Murphy and Zulli; the ‘backmatter’ (to retroactively apply the Warren Ellis term) of each issue is often stuffed with ecological news and information, with the letters pages usually devoted to discussion of environmental issues, along with the occasional mutual jape between creators and readers as to the book’s plot moving slowly. I'd have to agree that it's hardly a plot-twist-per-issue read, though in issues like #18 it becomes terribly clear that such storytelling isn't necessary for a successful issue of a pamphlet-format comic - really, #18 is a lot more successful at providing a single issue story than many issues of many series that carry such intentions as a specific mandate.

(I'm going from memory here, as I don't have the book with me, so somebody stop me if I screw up a detail or two)

The issue starts up with a full-page view of the Earth, though subsequent pages are sliced into four panels by a thick crossroads laid atop the center, our view of the planet obscured. And in the middle of that crossroads, as the pages pass by, a tiny image appears, first as nearly a dot, but gradually growing, approaching the reader. There are narrative captions, often difficult to follow, as they represent both what the lead character is thinking and what his television is saying. Sometimes he speaks aloud to have the channel changed (it's voice-activated). But what's clear, as that center image gets closer and closer, is that the four images of the world are being obscured by a vision of what's on the television. Lewd, sniggering ads reign supreme, as the image reaches full-page status in the form of a leering close-up of a woman's bathing-suit clad derrière. The world of cheap distraction and commercial sex has been found underneath the 'skin' of the planet.

But then, on the next page, our view is again cut into four, another 'crossroads' present on the page, as if we are seeing incisions being made on another layer of skin. Still, the television rumbles on, suggestive tubes of sunscreen spurting out their contents, but another tiny image begins to rise from the center. It's Our Hero himself, drinking and drinking, eventually tossing his empty bottle to the side, as captions grow more fevered as humankind's place on the Earth is questioned more and more. Thus, looking beneath the skin of media, we see the individual, the soft, delicate person, and that is what next threatens to fill the page.

And then, that image pulls back, like a heartbeat in slow motion, but we're no longer seeing the television's noise in the four quadrants of image. We are seeing scenes of nature, a still-kicking state of beauty, and the individual (along with his center panel) withdraws from view, as if an alternate means of accepting the feed of life has been sussed out, another, better layer between the macrocosm and the single person. Eventually, as the issue closes, nature is left alone on the page, as our view once again becomes one single full-page image. Birds flap across a lovely sky, along with a pair of those flying mantas, symbolizing life's soldiering on against the best efforts of human buzzing. The final caption represents a lament from the book's protagonist that he can't be part of that.

"I wish I can swim. Like dolphins can swim."

And that's all. Has anything happened? Well, it's the penultimate issue of the book's second storyline, and is followed only by a dream sequence in the next issue. Our Hero has been questioning his place in the world (again), and has been knocked away from his mission by other characters who doubt the goodness of what he and his superiors are up to. The visual approach of the issue might be viewed then as a personal breakthrough, a major character development conveyed largely through manipulations of the form, even as the words on the page remain difficult, elusive. It's great work; the series often tries to manage successes like that, and here it really breaks through.

Of course, the book's days were numbered. There were some distribution controversies going on at the time between publisher Dave Sim and Diamond, which led to the comic being self-published starting with issue #18, and eventually moved to Mirage for its final few issues. It was a series that felt very strongly about the plight of nature in America, but it too would soon be extinct, despite its increasingly potent evolutions. From what I can gather, the series was originally conceived as a 12-issue project; by the time issue 12 arrived, it had been made clear by the creators that the series was now being viewed as a large graphic novel, albeit one divided into an assortment of collection-ready storylines. Zulli estimated that the tale was about 1/3 complete at that point, though upon actually reading all 23 completed issues I got the feeling that I’d just finished a prologue.

As it stands, The Puma Blues was left in four distinct story parts: Watch That Man (issues #1-12), Sense of Doubt (issues #13-19), Eat or Be Eaten (issue #20, a special ‘benefit’ issue featuring a lot of different contributors - the Alan Moore/Steve Bissette/Michael Zulli story in there is great), and Under a Deep Blue Sun (#21-23, unfinished). The first two of those storylines were collected into trades, which are now long out-of-print, as far as I know. I bumbled upon a complete run of the pamphlets in a comics store, though eBay might be the best option for you. Me, I already want to get back to my copies, to read through it again and see what new I can see.