About two years ago, David Brothers recommended Brandon Graham’s King City in a conversation and in a series of great posts at 4th Letter. At that time, there was no collected edition, and only selected issues were available in my local store. I nodded, politely smiled, and bookmarked the posts (which also include these three gems). I made a mental note to pick up King City if it ever came out in a collection. I was in the middle of reading something or watching some “epic”/”novelistic” television show, and had a long list of things to read and watch in one of my queues so I was in no rush. I read an issue or two, but didn’t really connect with the book until I picked up the collection published by Image Comics earlier this year. After I read the first issue, I was hooked. When I was reading the fourth issue, this song came up in my shuffle:
For a few minutes, I was transported back to 1995. There was something that just clicked. I navigated to Only Built 4 Cuban Linx and pressed play. As I saw Pete compromise his principles and walk home in the rain, Ghostface told Raekwon that “this is my last time god, I’m hanging this shit up if this shit don’t work right here god.”
Something hit me, and this is what came out when I tried to speak.
Do you remember what it feels like to fall out of love?
I’m not talking about a brief infatuation that fades with the turning of the seasons, but the kind of love that withstands turmoil. That burrows under your skin, that changes you so thoroughly that you may wake up to find a familiar stranger looking back at you in the mirror. When it goes away, it leaves scars, at least for a little while. The phantom pains gradually dissipate and you move on, though every once in a while, you’ll see or hear or smell something that will remind you of what you lost.
There was a time in my life when I loved superhero comics. I marveled at the stories of extraordinary people doing amazing things for all the obvious reasons, but it was the depictions of the shared universes in which these stories took place that kept me reading. The messy patchwork universes that contained elements of science fiction, fantasy, horror and adventure fiction, all in a setting that bore a passing resemblance to the world outside my door.
I valued the blank spaces that invited the reader to imagine possibilities and identify meaning. I appreciated the perfectly structured and executed narratives that unfolded like clockwork, but I loved the messier stories. The stories that were hinted at, but never fully explained. I loved the crumbling monuments to lost civilizations that lurked in the background of Jack Kirby’s Fourth World books, the prophesied final battle between Darkseid and Orion that would never come to pass.
These spaces served as an imaginative springboard for the exploration of an array of storytelling possibilities. I enjoyed the process of discovering an author’s intended meaning, but relished the opportunity to invent a meaning of my own.
It’s the reason why the impenetrable slang of Raekwon, Ghostface Killah and Camp Lo struck a chord for me during my personal Golden Age of hip-hop in the mid ’90’s. I liked “that crazy space shit that don’t even make no sense“. I loved the fact that these mcs made overfamiliar streets and neighborhoods unrecognizable in albums like Only Built 4 Cuban Linx and Uptown Saturday Night. It was music that transformed something depressing and predictable into a realm of infinite possibility.
Things changed. I got older and my expectations shifted. The more I read and experienced, the more I saw the limits of superhero world. I needed a narrative that was more radical, more experimental, more open to possibility, and the superhero universes felt too stifling, too conventional. I wanted things that were stranger and less familiar. Science fiction that explored civilizations that were more than analogues for ancient European civilizations. A supernatural world influenced by a broader array of cultures.
I almost had a similar experience with hip-hop. The world portrayed in the music felt cramped and insular. I was a little too familiar with the narratives, even the more abstract ones. But that wasn’t enough to change my feelings. I guess this is where the analogy between hip-hop and superhero narratives falls apart. Although both are genres within their respective mediums, most vast superhero narratives are published by Marvel and DC, which have used their dominant position to define genre conventions. In a very real sense, superhero stories are what Marvel and DC say they are, which creates a huge barrier to entry for independent cartoonists who might have interest in creating a vast superhero narrative. Why work in the shadow of the “Big Two” when you can just tell stories in a different genre? It’s impossible to imagine similar constraints in hip-hop.
So, whenever I started to tire of hip-hop, a new album or mixtape or collective changed my mind. When I lost interest in the possibility of superhero comics, I just started reading other genres. Nowadays, books like Casanova, Duncan the Wonder Dog and Mike Mignola’s BPRD series fill that gap with universes that leave tantalizing spaces to be filled by the readers. But it’s different. That sense of unbridled joy is gone.
I’ve always assumed that it was just part of getting older, of reading a lifetimes worth of comics in my (combined) 15 years as a reader. But Brandon Graham may have changed my mind. King City is a book that reminds me what it felt like to be excited by superhero comics.
King City is inspirational. There are lots of ways to summarize the plot of the book, but it primarily struck me as an intimate story about the things we do for love that also inadvertently serves as a parable about inner and external conflict. In twelve issues, Brandon Graham evokes the experiences and lessons of early adulthood while giving the reader a glimpse into a richly detailed world filled with possibility. In the midst of a war between an owl gang and a demon king, we get scenes that remind us what it’s like to return to a home that became unfamiliar in our absence, or to fall head over heels in love with a place while mourning a lost love. Graham reminded me of the moment when I figured out what kind of man I wanted to be and began to negotiate the challenge of balancing the needs of the world with those of my loved ones. There are endlessly inventive visual puns and a quiet, haunting scene where I suspect that one character finally realized that her love was lost to her (and was equally certain that he didn’t know it yet).
All in a package that’s lighter than air, a breezy read that you never want to end. The old fan of superhero comics comes out and you want to keep reading and exploring the world (which is why it’s so satisfying that you can’t).
This is what it felt like in the summer of 1995, when RZA, Raekwon and Ghostface changed the game.
Only Built 4 Cuban Linx was not the best of 1995, but its ambitious (and unexpected) world building set it apart from most other albums of that era. They created a world equally inspired by 1970’s kung fu and exploitation films, black nationalist dogma, Nation of Islam/5 Percenter doctrine, John Woo flicks, Golden Age hip-hop and post 80’s crack culture. OB4CL‘s influences are easy to trace, but the result feels utterly original. In King City, Brandon Graham blends genres, storytelling approaches and visual styles to create a city that bears no resemblance to anything that I’ve seen before.
In what’s become his trademark approach, Graham drops the reader in what could be mistaken for the middle of an ongoing story, and proceeds to release a flood of ideas, concepts and characters, any one of which could be the basis for a great series. The reader is thrown in the deep end – in the first issue alone, we’re introduced to hyper-intelligent weaponized felines and Sasquatches that run hotels for spies. It should feel overwhelming. But it doesn’t. Graham’s loose, disciplined approach to visual storytelling and canny use of space keep the reader oriented.
The panels are filled with detail – I found myself frequently pausing to admire Graham’s beautifully rendered architecture and pleasantly losing myself in all of the clever jokes, silly puns and awesome graffiti – but somehow, everything feels uncluttered, even spacious.
Graham’s pacing is relaxed and laconic – there’s not a wasted moment, but I always felt like I had time to drink it all in. Like Only Built 4 Cuban Linx or Uptown Saturday Night, King City can be appreciated on two levels – you can focus on the details and thickly layered storytelling and figurative language or just surrender to the work.
The phrase “worldbuilding” doesn’t do justice to what Graham built in King City, and it’s not because of the things he tells the reader, it’s what he suggests. It’s all the things that happened in King City in the two years since Joe left the city, the xombi war that left Max with permanent physical and emotional scars. It’s how the end of the world is relegated to the background of the story or how the pineapple war (or the exorbitant dental bills that must have followed) goes almost entirely unexplained. The book is filled with expositional info dumps that are surprisingly fun and engaging (reminiscent of the work Giffen did on the 5YL era Legion of Super-Heroes), but incomplete. The reader learns enough to sense the broad contours of the world; the rest is left up to the imagination. Graham challenges us to fill the gaps ourselves, to become active participants in the storytelling process, deepening our connection with the narrative.
One of my favorite things about hip-hop are all of the gaps in the narrative, the references to blocks I’d never visit, people I’d never meet, and gangs I’d never heard of – the spaces that we were left to fill with our own memories and experiences. I’ve never been to Los Angeles, but Ice Cube’s sober message about the value of a young black man’s life resonated with me. I could only imagine what it would be like to live in a community dominated by the Bloods or the Crips, but it was pretty easy to fill the gaps with the Decepticons, the Kings and the Netas. It made the stories feel more personal.
It’s been almost twenty years since I first heard the Wu-Tang Clan, and it was that sense of mystery that instantly made them my favorite hip-hop group. On Enter the Wu Tang, listeners were introduced to a world whose familiar elements made it feel even more foreign. It wasn’t the references to martial arts movies that I half watched on lazy Sunday mornings, or a religion that bore a slight resemblance to the one that I grew up with, it was the more fundamental things, like the fact that it was a challenge to identify which MC delivered a verse on a particular song, or even match faces with names. It’s easy to forget now, but we didn’t even know what Ghostface looked like. All of this was compounded by the mystery surrounding their home of Staten Island, which was largely a blank space in the world of hip-hop. There was something about it that reminded me of superhero narratives.
The group’s first wave of “solo” albums challenged the listener to fill gaps in different ways, but in Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, Raekwon, RZA and Ghostface constructed a world in which the listener is expected to fill the space between John Woo movies, drug trafficking and street culture. We’re left to complete the story of the drug dealer who “claim[ed] New York was ancient Babylon, where the sky stayed the color of gray like heron”. We bridge the gap between a scene from Woo’s The Killer and the musings of an exhausted, ambitious drug dealer in “Rainy Dayz“. That’s how we make the story ours.
Although there’s something about Graham’s inventive world that evokes the appeal of superhero comics, the thoughtfulness of his genre play sets him apart. In King City, Graham embraces many of the conventions of romantic comedy and action/adventure stories while transcending and subverting others; sometimes the best romantic stories end with the young man healing his broken heart through friendship instead of love and sometimes the responsibility that comes with power is towards your loved ones.
These choices keep the narrative grounded in a recognizable reality – they serve as a counterweight to the more outlandish stuff and help the reader maintain an investment in the characters and story. The puns are stronger and funnier because you believe in and recognize the characters. There’s nothing wrong with the old tropes, but Graham’s approach just resonates more.
It’s worth reading King City as a pure exercise of skill, daring and craft, but I think Graham’s exploration of the ethical dimensions of violent conflict is what fascinates me the most. Graham wrestles with different approaches to managing and solving conflict throughout King City, whether through Pete’s moral dilemma or Joe’s involvement in the war between the owl gang and the chi-noc-tok. Although Graham satisfies some of the expectations that readers have for action scenes, he occasionally deflates or undermines them in hilarious and often sad ways. There was something hollow about the moments when characters used force for an impersonal cause, a feeling which was reinforced by the plight of Max, the war veteran who serves as a living reminder of the consequence of impersonal violence.
It’s equally clear that the use of force can be morally justifiable, particularly when one’s loved ones are threatened. Compare the mission to secure the four brains with the rescue of Pete and the Illendovian from the Greenest Grass brothel. In the first, Joe successfully executes a mission to secure four brains on behalf of his handler (“to fight the forces of evil”). The scene is exciting, daring, and… ultimately meaningless. The rush that I got when Earthling (the cat) secures the brains was tempered by the realization that the mission serves the agenda of the enigmatic Owl Gang. In contrast, Joe’s rescue of Pete and the Illendovian felt genuinely exhilarating because the stakes felt more meaningful and personal. Even then, once the reader is given a glimpse into the pain that the Illendovian suffered in captivity, it’s hard to avoid feeling deflated. You can’t escape the consequences of violence.
Even when it does resolve things, it is often the least meaningful conflict, and creates more problems than it solves. Joe’s inner struggle to achieve mastery of his ego lies at the center of the story and is far more important than the war to prevent the union of the chi-noc-tok.
The scenes when Joe realized that “[e]ating sandwiches across from [Anna] for twenty minutes felt better than a month of weird, cold Beebay sex” or when he reconciled himself with the fact that Anna had moved on after their break-up were more thrilling and moving than any fight scene.
That inner struggle is central to OB4CL. Although the album’s filled with all the thrilling stories of heists and shootouts that one would expect from a hip-hop album focused on the criminal underworld, Rae and Ghost don’t ignore the costs and consequences of the drug dealer’s lifestyle. From the very beginning, they’re ready to abandon the drug dealer’s life for reasons related to self-preservation: the risks are too great and the rewards too uncertain. RZA describes the album as something like an exorcism, “invit[ing] those demons, every negative stereotype, and deal[ing] with them.” By the close of the album, the duo’s external struggle is complete – “Wu-Gambinos” is both a celebration of the duo’s “mission” and a successful exorcism; the harsh reality of criminal life has been transformed into a harmless fiction, complete with aliases and allusions to Mafia narratives. But that’s not the end of the story. There’s a famous (and possibly apocryphal) hadith about jihad that’s embraced by many strains of Islam, particularly the Sufis. As the story goes, the Prophet Muhammad and a band of his followers returned from a successful military campaign and was heard to remark that they had returned from the lesser war to the greater war. When asked to clarify, he explained that the greater struggle was the one against one’s darker instincts. There’s a sense of this struggle throughout the album, but it moves to the forefront in the last two tracks, “Heaven and Hell” and “North Star (Jewels)” . In Heaven and Hell, the duo tell deglamorized stories about the criminal life without the layers of fantasy that characterized earlier narratives. They yearn for redemption, but “don’t believe in Heaven because they’re living in Hell”. In “North Star”, they begin to take the steps toward understanding that larger internal struggle, but cannot escape the pull of the streets. As Poppa Wu lays out the moral choice in stark terms (you’re either good or bad), Raekwon is preparing to go to war again.
You’re left wishing that Raekwon took Catmaster General Mudd’s advice:
King City is a humane deconstruction of an action comic that is also a compelling, frequently hilarious read. It’s a book that restored my love of this wacky medium. Go read it. If you’ve read it already, go read his amazing work (with artists including Simon Roy, Giannis Milonogiannis and Farel Darymple) on Prophet. If you’re all caught up on Prophet, wait patiently for the release of Multiple Warheads. I know that I am.