Friday, May 11, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #131: The Puma Blues by Stephen Murphy and Michael Zulli

Contradictions are inherent in any work of fiction, like they are in the real world. Nothing is pure and clear and exactly what it is -- everything contains the seeds of its opposite.

But it's still really weird that what's supposed to be the great late 20th century poetic ecological comic, a story about impending doom and inevitable biosphere destruction, is all about a guy hanging out in what is shown as a lush wilderness, full of lovingly-rendered large animals at the top of the food chain, who all look really healthy and active. It's almost like the idea of impending doom is more interesting than telling a story of that doom -- just assume the doom and use it in phantasmagorical ways.

This may be another case of a book that I either neglected to read at the right time, or that I'm utterly the wrong reader for. It happens.

I never read The Puma Blues when it was running as a periodical comic, in the late '80s. My kid brother was a fan, I think, but I don't remember more than glancing at his comics. I knew it was there, and I respected it -- it came out of the Renegade/Aardvark-Vanaheim/Aardvark One International "stable" of Dave Sim's Cerebus -- but I had some sense that it wasn't really my thing.

Thirty years later, creators Stephen Murphy and Michael Zulli finished up the unfinished story for this big fat hardcover from Dover -- over five hundred and fifty pages of comics. And I think I was right not to jump into it, back in the day -- it isn't really my thing, as interesting and compelling and distinctive as it is.

Gavia Immer is a young murderer -- literally the first thing we see him do in the comic is mope around and straight-up kill a bum, in a scene that is never referenced again -- who gets a vague game warden-esque job at the Quabbin Reservoir in Massachusetts, where he's free to wander around and muse about stuff apparently all day long. The world around him is seriously crapsack, we're told (though we mostly don't see it until near the end of this book): white supremacist terrorists murdered President Kemp and detonated a small nuke in the Bronx in 1995, and the biosphere may be on the verge of a complete collapse. The main story takes place in 2000, in a world Murphy says has been going straight downhill in the intervening fifteen years.

All that is vague -- we know the world is horrible and getting worse, but the comic is about one guy wandering around what looks like unspoiled nature obsessing about his dead father and that father's various loony-tune conspiracy theories. (I am afraid aliens are deeply involved, because Puma Blues is from the '80s, before ubiquitous good photography definitively nailed shut the UFO coffin.)

In fact, Puma Blues is almost two different comics: Zulli's evocative drawings of nature and quiet visual storytelling is one thing. And Murphy's script -- more allusive than literal, prone to fly off on wings of attempts at prose poetry, besotted with its own words and wordiness -- is a base for that Zulli art, but not always a script for it, the way two jazz musicians interweave their separate lines without ever actually harmonizing.

There are events in Puma Blues, but it's a comic of tone and atmosphere and mood more than a story -- Gavia mopes around a reservoir, watches his father's paranoid apocalyptic rants, and occasionally interacts with his superiors. It's not a story meant to go anywhere; the charitable explanation is that the world is falling apart, so where is there to go?

Puma Blues ended, unfinished, in 1989, its apocalypse still imminent. This hardcover collects all of the '80s material plus a jarring new forty-page final chapter -- which is even wordier, particularly in the early pages, than the original series -- in which Murphy merges the Puma Blues alternate history with our real history to give him every possible real and imagined horrible thing in the world. Puma Blues was already ornate and overwrought; this ending pushes that up to eleven, than cracks off the knob in trying to amp it even higher. The good news there is that the new Zulli pages are just as impressive as, and thematically consistent with, his earlier work. But, as an ending, it's loud and shrill and haranguing, and this reader was mostly happy to finally get to the end of it.

The hardcover collection of Puma Blues also features a long introduction by Dave Sim, who shows that even when he's trying to be polite and positive in public, he's still a crazy autodidact with deeply confused ingrained notions about the universe which will never be swayed by mere facts or logic. Similarly, Stephen Bissette uses a long afterword to tell the story of Murphy's and Zulli's subsequenct careers and to re-litigate Puma Blues's and Dave Sim's fight with Diamond that was the proximate cause of the title's collapse in the '80s.

What all of that has in common -- Murphy's prose, Zulli's images, Sim's insistence that the Earth was formed when one cosmic sphere fucked another, and Bissette's loving description of Murphy's years writing Ninja Turtles stories -- is that it's all deeply inside baseball. Which particular baseball game it's calling balls and strikes for varies by person, and Zulli's work is the most accessible, but it's all hermetic in its own way. Puma Blues does not open out to the world; it closes in to form its own world. It's a unique world, and deeply interesting in some ways, but you have to make the journey to go there -- it will not meet you halfway, or even one step towards where you are now.

If you're interested in that world, though, there is nothing else like Puma Blues.

1 comment:

Steve Chaput said...

I was buying this when it first was published and even had a nice correspondence with Michael Zulu, way back when. I have the original TPB collections and would never part with them. Really a classic series that deserves recognition.

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