This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on June 7, 2017.
Taken at face value The Bulletproof Coffin is a comic that should not work. That is especially true of its newest installment, a one-shot titled “The One-Thousand Yard Stare”. It riffs on the ever-smaller and more incestuous comics industry while delivering a layered story stuffed with cruel, nonsensical characters. This comic doesn’t appear to like its creators, itself, or anyone that might walk into a shop to purchase it.
So why the hell does this comic work so well?
The secret is in the cruelty. There’s not a romantic notion to be found within the pages of The Bulletproof Coffin. While the series regularly acknowledges both its history and means of production, there’s none of the feigned reverence or mythologization commonly found in most superhero metanarratives. It opts to deliver every plot point as bluntly as a shotgun blast to the face.
Nowhere is this traumatic impact approach more clear than in the comic within a comic “Hypno Vampires From The Stars”. This comic created none other than Shaky Kane plays with pinup aliens, brutal cops, and a noir hero that checks off every cliche (give or take a fly mask). It’s simple and uninspired, but manages to deliver more entertainment than current reiterations of similar concepts in Batman. The lack of self-importance is refreshing as it packs an entire narrative into just a handful of pages.
This could be read as a rejection of decompression or a mockery of the genres, but neither of those seems to be the real case. What “Hypno Vampires From The Stars” really seems to be is an imitation of something done a thousand times each year in American comics to various degrees of applause from a very small crowd. That Kane’s drawings and layouts are more effective than most of what you’ll encounter from “Big Two Comics” might an accident of talent and focus. The focus here is on efficacy and that makes the quick read within a read a surprisingly superior creation in spite of its lack of depth. It is what it claims to be on the surface and that is what makes it both entertaining and effective.
Where “The One-Thousand Yard Stare” really pushes itself is in how that ashcan comic conflicts with the story surrounding it. This is where the hate sets in. Kane is depicted as a resentful comics creator shackled to a convention circuit and surrounded by fans he loathes. His history jumps between that of an imagine Image founder with too much money and a monstrous version of Jack Kirby hunched over a table. There’s a lot of aspects to be found within Kane, but all of them are resentful.
The sadness of his story emerges from the depiction of every character. Wrinkles and small details turn each individual, no matter how minor, into something crude. Compared with the smooth contours of Coffin Fly or buxom cops, the people in and around comics are hideous. And while they don’t feel like real people, they do hold some connection to reality in a way the “heroes” never do. These broad strokes of theme and specific lines of ugliness are all well-crafted. The metanarrative only steers off course when it relishes pointing out the world which it critiques a bit too precisely. Joy at mentioning Image or the Big Two draws attention away from the cynicism that makes “The One-Thousand Yard Stare” both compelling and repulsive.
The Bulletproof Coffin is back and readers may believe it is with a vengeance. That would be a misinterpretation of a comic whose characters are driven by self-loathing, or ought to be. There’s no grand statement about comics within these pages; it’s a saddening acknowledgement, really. However, within that acknowledgement lies great craft and a depiction of people and artifice that reveal why some of us still can’t leave comics alone.