Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Transit by Ted McKeever

It's important to check your assumptions against reality regularly: we often find that what we think is true actually has very little do with with what really happened.

Case in point: Ted McKeever.

I had McKeever in my head as one of the great comics wild men, coming out of nowhere with striking, original, and bizarre work in the late '80s, briefly flourishing, and then disappearing from the scene entirely. In my head, he was in the company of Marc Hansen and Bob Burden. Maybe there was a hint of "too pure for this world," or some back-patting that I liked his stuff even though the Great Unwashed didn't.

That is not exactly true. In fact, it's wrong in several ways: the person who lost touch was me. McKeever's been out there the whole time, working away in comics. He moved on to things I didn't pay much attention to, but that's all me, not him.

So I remembered Transit and Eddy Current and Plastic Forks and Metropol, but I'd forgotten he went from there to illustrating part of Rachel Pollack's run on Doom Patrol in the years of High Vertigo. (Which is a knock on me: I was fan of both of them at the time, and I'm pretty sure I owned most of those comics.) And, well, it's been more than twenty years since then, and he's had new comics work out pretty much every one of those years, according to Wikipedia.

Also, because of that misconception, I had the vague sense that Transit was incomplete because it was the last thing McKeever did on his way out of comics. Again: totally wrong. Transit was McKeever's first comics work, and it was left incomplete for reasons that aren't explained in this 2008 collection. (But I think a huge part of the explanation, for those of us who were around in the '80s, is that his publisher was Vortex.)

Anyway, Transit had five issues back in 1987-88, and then, twenty years later, those five issues and "the lost finale" (from the different art style and radical shift in tone, this was "lost" in the sense of "never actually drawn and possibly not written until the 21st century") were collected into one volume as part of a larger reprinting/rediscovery of McKeever's work from Image's Shadowline imprint.

(The spine calls this book Ted McKeever Library Book 1: Transit The Complete Series, for you sticklers.)

Like those other early McKeever books, it's the story of an ordinary guy in an odd urban setting, with extraordinary events cascading around him and a cast of quirky weirdos and creepy villains. It doesn't hold together as well as say Eddy Current does, in large part because it didn't have an ending for twenty years and now has one that's very muted and distant, as if pieced together by scholars a hundred years later from fragmentary contemporary accounts.

The guy is Spud. We see him in a subway, casually vandalizing the posters of mayoral candidates. Then he's shot (at?) by a cop and finds himself in the path of a train. For several pages he seems to be dead, and the reader starts to think he will not be our protagonist after all. But Spud does show up again -- he's going to have much worse happen to him over the next five issues than just being shot and run over by a subway.

There is, of course, a corrupt man running for mayor. This was the '80s, so I'm afraid that he's a preacher. And he's backed by the usual really fat shadowy master-of-everything of this city, who sits in his palatial office high up in an office tower. They are both not particularly characterized beyond cackling about the evil things they are doing and plan to keep doing. But McKeever had a very Munoz-esque -- maybe filtered through Keith Giffen, maybe not -- appeal to his art at this point, and evil men in dark rooms brings out the best of that art style.

Transit is not a tightly plotted book: it starts from Spud and the nasty mayoral election, and wanders around its grimy city from there, bringing in more oddball characters and bouncing between energetic scenes that don't always completely track to each other. It always makes it way back to Spud and the evil guys eventually, more or less, but each loop seems to have less and less to do with the initial setup. And then, of course, we hit the "lost finale,"a series of quick scenes of the characters, to close out all of their stories and provide something like an ending. I don't think it's the ending McKeever was aiming for back in 1988, but Transit feels like a book that was plotted as it went along, so I may be making an unwarranted assumption to say he was aiming for any particular ending.

In any case, it's done now, such as it is, and available in one volume. (Or was, a decade ago. It may be harder to find now.) McKeever got more controlled and organized from here, but Transit shows the bones of the later stories -- it shows that McKeever was on his track from the beginning.

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