COMIC REVIEW: Raygun Roads

raygun-roads-coverHave you ever been completely surprised by a comic?  It’s a wonderful feeling.

I agreed to read and review Raygun Roads without knowing a thing about it, and I’m glad as hell that I did.  If I’d seen panels from inside or read the blurb in advance, I’m pretty sure I would have passed on the prospect out of hand.  Punk band superheroes, you say?  Psychedelic imagery and fluorescent colours throughout?  Yech!  Let’s just say on my first glance through I really didn’t think it’d be my cup of tea.  Shows how wrong you can be, I guess.  It’s times like this that I’m really grateful to be a part of something like the Geek Syndicate because, as with so many other hidden gems scattered about in the long grass of indie comics, Raygun Roads absolutely kicks arse.  It may not be the prettiest book you read this year, but it’ll light a fire under you in a way that very few comics manage to achieve.  This isn’t just another cape brawl, or feeble excuse to perv over the female form (although to be sure, twisted versions of both may be found within.)  This book actually means something.  The writer is Owen Michael Johnson, whom you may recall was responsible for the excellent Thaddeus Mist project.  He brings a very different sensibility to bear here, but at the heart of it he is still exploring what it means to really be alive.   Intrigued?  Let’s take a trip on the flip side and I’ll tell you more about it.

Raygun_Roads

‘If this is familiar it’s because you’ve been here before.’

The structural conceit is that of a vinyl record, with story segments forming the songs.  Raygun Roads is the singer with the Kittlebach Pirates, a raucous punk band tearing up the music scene in some other reality.  Essentially, this is her album.  She’s everything the aged establishment despises – an encapsulation of defiant youth – but as the needle drops and the story begins, a world mourns her passing.  It’s a vivid and fascinating opening, smashing home the importance of the character before we find out why.  The identity of the mourners, and the treasured paraphernalia surrounding Raygun in her coffin, speak volumes about her artistic lineage and the values of the creative team.  The end blurs into the beginning as we flip from side A to side B, to side A, to side B – and this is a concept I find utterly thrilling.  The comic is designed to be experienced over and over again, allowing layers of meaning to accrete over time.  It doesn’t just say it’s a music album, it functions like one.  It’s a veritable mind worm.

The full title of the comic is Raygun Roads and the Infinity Loop Death-trap of Ulysses Pomp.  (I know!)  Pomp is the villain of the piece: an all-purpose representative of capitalist oppression, spitting out platitudes and withering scorn in equal measure as he farms the energies of his slaves.  Vince Paradise seems doomed to become one of those slaves.  He is our Everyman character, a familiar figure we can empathise with.  When we meet him he’s just a kid at the job centre desperately trying not to be ground down by the system.  He wants to be creative, inspirational, but the only jobs available are mind-numbing and mechanical.  He’s an insignificant speck to the careers advisor, but given the chance he might just become the saviour of the world.  Raygun Roads and The Kittlebach Pirates burst across realities to give him that chance.  From here on in it’s a hell-for-leather ride through the cobwebs of the mind in order to defeat Ulysses Pomp and ultimately fulfil Vince’s potential.  Along the way they’ll fight alcopop zombies, face their darkest fears and find a way to transform the nature of the generic office prawn.  (Just… go with it.)  Part satire, part social commentary and part world-rattling rant, this is one trip you won’t easily forget.

The artwork is, as I’ve indicated, pretty ugly – but it’s ugly with a purpose.  It’s meant to shock, it’s supposed to be extreme.  Punk art is confrontational by nature, and if it doesn’t shake you up it’s simply not doing its job.  Indio does it in spades, in a pistol-paced parade of psychedelic scenes, screaming with satire and anarchic outrage.  He has a verve and an energy that leaves the reader speechless.  Breathless, even.  There’s a feast of detail within, referencing all sorts of rebellious pop culture iconography, from 1984 and A Clockwork Orange, to The Bash Street Kids and The Banana Splits.  It’s art that keeps on giving, much like Kevin O’Neill’s work on The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.  Part of the joy of the experience is in spotting new details and wrinkles of meaning-by-association every time you read it.  It’s bright and bold, rude, raucous and endlessly inventive stuff.  Sometimes the art seems to overpower the script, which was problematic for me.  Although I ‘got it’ first time round, it took a second and a third read through to take it all in.  The satire is laid on so thickly, the metaphors so extreme, that they overwhelm the senses.  How can you take in tricky concepts and sly humour when your eyes are being blasted by an orgy of neon nightmares?  It’s excessive, true, but in a way that leaves your brain fizzing for more, rather than turning away in disgust.  You want to understand it.

So, what does it all mean?  Well, that’ll vary from reader to reader, but here’s some of what I took from it.  It’s not just a story – in many ways it’s not even a story.  It’s an allegory.  The comic talks directly to us, with Vince as our avatar.  In the context of the story Raygun is a free thinker and a rebel, railing against the tyranny of The Man, the apathy of the abused masses.  But think about the title.  What do the words Raygun Roads mean to you?  Symbolically, I see her as a road-map, showing us the way to a brighter future.  Gleaming, optimistic and exciting.  It’s a place where opportunities are expanded, not crushed.  Raygun is a saviour in the best tradition – by inspiring us to save ourselves.  The book shows us a way of looking at ourselves, and at the world around us.  It’s empowerment driven by fury, creativity cracking the cage around it, it’s life in all its vibrant and defiant glory.  Confused by the narrative?  Join the club.  Wondering what the bleeding hell is going on as you turn from page to page?  ‘Dude, if you keep thinking so literally, the universe is doomed.’  We all live in Vince’s world.  Every day we witness, even take part in the mundane apocalypse of individuality.  To paraphrase the comic, it’s up to us to harness the metaphor and do something about it.  Owen Michael Johnson is doing his part.  What about you?

Reviewer: Dion Winton-Polak

Rating: 4.5/5

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