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You Should Be Reading ‘King City’

King City: Open wide.

Generally, the big moments, those scenes that really matter in comics, the ones that get a rush of elation and cheers, are the big ones. Spider-Man punching Norman Osborn in the face after a long fight; Captain America giving an inspirational speech, or Superman screaming “This ends now!” and opening up with full-power laser eyes. Sometimes it takes the form of a plot twist, like when Magneto was revealed as Xorn in Grant Morrison’s New X-Men, or a big reveal, like the pregnancy of Misty Knight. We know it, we expect it, we love it, and we talk about it for years afterward.

In King City, Brandon Graham takes those big moments, the ones that knock your socks off and rock your world, and turns them on their ear. They aren’t just the big shots, the ones meant to make you pump your first. Things as inconsequential as half-formed, post-coital thoughts or two guys hanging out are treated with the same amount of attention, and care, as a Lovecraftian monster striding through the center of the city.

Sometimes your feet just stink.Backing up: King City was originally published as a manga-sized graphic novel by Tokyopop in 2008, and moved to Image Comics last year to be republished as single issues and then continue with new material. It’s the story of Joe, the Cat Master, and his cat Earthling. Depending on what Joe injects him with, Earthling can perform a number of tasks, from lock-picking to turning into a parachute to providing storage for four brains after a job. After spending time outside of King City, Joe returns and begins to ply his trade. Since this is an adventure story, Joe runs into big trouble early on, and there’s a clear strain of menace running throughout the book.

That’s what the book is about… theoretically. In reality, King City is just a story about the people in King City. Graham paces the book in such a way that big action scenes get as much room to breathe as sequences focused purely on emotional resonance — a balance that’s a little different than most mainstream comics. It’s about Joe’s trials and travails, and all of the action definitely matters, but in-between moments matter just as much, and Graham lavishes attention on them like no one else.Nine times out of ten, two page spreads are dedicated to things like a dude punching another dude, or someone shooting eye lasers or something. But no — King City #4 commits two pages, right in the middle of the book, to a cityscape with a logo across the top. It doesn’t push the plot along, it doesn’t reveal anything we didn’t already know, and there isn’t even a credit box or title card. No one does anything. It’s just a dope drawing of a small part of the place the story takes place in. This sort of thing is common in King City, and it’s just an example of the fascinating way Graham has chosen to tell his story.

The city itself comes first. Graham makes King City feel like a real city with tons of one-shot gags, lots of landscapes, and very vocal citizens. When Joe is walking around the city in one issue, a drug dealer, a weapons dealer, and a prostitute offer him drugs, sex, and knives respectively. A panel later, another guy offers Joe a “drunk knife you can have sex with,” pissing off the other three. A trash can asks Joe to kill his evil twin after Joe asks if he’s “talkin’ trash.” Something happens on every page, even, and sometimes especially, if that something is just King City.

One, two, three, breathe.

Graham knows how to control how fast you’re reading, too. When Joe first sees the girl with the big butt from the third issue, he’s standing in a doorway while she reclines on a stack of lush pillows. His shadow stretches all the way across the room in the first panel on the page. In the second, larger panel, his shadow stretches out across the floor as she sits in a smoky room. It’s like something out of Apocalypse Now, with a dash of instant sex appeal. She’s cool and in control, and the three panels dedicated to her using her lighter and taking a drag off a cigarette deliberately slow you down. You’ve got to take your time while you take it in. You’ve got no choice.

King City: Lean in closer.Graham often forces you to linger on a panel or scene. Later on in the same scene, the same girl steps in close to Joe. There’s a floating panel that features her right foot between both of his feet. She’s intimately close, the kind of close that can quickly get uncomfortable. This panel is composed of just three shoes, but it says a lot. It tells us about the woman and Joe, and it shows the power that she already has over him. When she leaves, an entire panel is dedicated to her scratching the back of Earthling’s neck. Why? Why not.

“Why not” really says all you need to know about Graham’s choices in King City. Why not have soda that comes in flavors like Divorce and Victory? (Victory is sweet, by the way.) Why not have Optimus Prime Roast coffee? Why not have a cat get into a fantastic battle with a monster, mostly off-screen, and focus your attention on the reunion between two former lovers instead?

King City is a wildly inventive book, with each issue packed to overflowing with clever ideas, amusing turns of phrase scrawled in the background, great puns, and magnificent work with characterization.It’s funny, the action is good, the art is great, and each issue is a joy to read. It makes other comics look lazy in comparison. King City is pure Brandon Graham, every page carefully written and drawn for maximum quality and poured directly from his brain. I hesitate to say that this is a deeply personal work, as I kinda doubt that Graham has a cat that doubles as a multi-tool, but he is creating a pretty idiosyncratic work. Every punch and ninja kick is as important as a waggling butt (with “child burying hips”) or a cat watching soap operas and bawling his eyes out. Everything matters; everything is beautiful, and King City is a great place to visit.

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