Ever since DC editor Julius Schwartz made his appearance in the pages of Flash #179 (1968), the intersection between fact and fiction, reality and fantasy has been blurred for comics and graphic novels. Although Schwartz would have recurring experiences in the DC multiverse and encounter an A-list of its heroes, Grant Morrison broke the fourth wall even more by directly entering the pages of his Animal Man series as a major character affecting the hero's journey. Now, David Hine and Shaky Kane raise the bar again as they become integral parts of the ongoing narrative and reimagine the structure and execution of sequential storytelling in Bulletproof Coffin.
As David Hine revealed to me at the 2011 Comic Con in San Diego, Bulletproof Coffin was a series in the making for him and Kane over many years. The result is an experiment in fiction both in form and content as Hine and Kane infuse the series with self-denigrating humor regarding their own perceptions of themselves as creators. Continually poking fun at themselves and their public, real personas as writer and artist for mainstream Marvel or DC comics series, Hine and Kane insert themselves into Bulletproof Coffin as a mysterious set of secluded hacks driven into obscurity as the comic industry matured and progressed. By placing themselves directly into the narrative, they establish a foundation for a perplexing and often rewarding journey.
Centering on Steve Newman, a voids contractor who inventories and collects the belongings of the recently deceased, Bulletproof Coffin opens on the drudgery of his existence. Discovering a repository and treasure trove of pop culture, consumer artifacts and kitsch in one household, Newman is thrust into the lost world of Golden Nugget comics, a defunct publisher. Retreating into his inner sanctum away from both work and a family that gives the Addams and Munsters a fair run for their money in terms of sheer bizarreness, Newman embarks on a reading trail of comic issues that should not exist. It is in these fictional realms that Hine's storytelling mastery and inventiveness shine as he creates a second tier world within the series.
Horror meets noir and jungle adventures encounter zombies as Hine explores the fictional worlds of the Gold Nugget comics characters the Unforgiving Eye, Red Wraith, Ramona Queen of the Stone Age, Shield of Justice, and Coffin Fly. As Newman reads their stories, audiences are also treated to the inclusion of special features about Golden Nugget and the characters, making the entire series a multilayered experience. The second tier elements of Newman's comics becomes a separate third as he physically engages with them, yielding a fourth level as readers then must decipher what is truly real and what is fiction. The arrival of Hine and Kane as the creators of Golden Nugget's major properties adds not only an even greater dimension of obscurity to the puzzle, but also a fascinating redefinition of comics' narrative form.
Much like Rian Hughes or Frazer Irving, Shaky Kane's approach to coloring is entirely wrong in that it often fails to replicate what readers instinctively envision as what environments, clothing, and skin pigmentation values should possess in comics. Kane's take, however, is a fresh breath and rapid infusion of pure psychedelia into the superhero genre akin to Kirby's Fourth World on acid. Beyond the hues and color palette Kane employs with his flat, almost day-glo, 1980s pop consumerism, his lines also betray a frenzied, neurotic quality that brings to mind Frank Quitely or Chris Burnham in popular comics, or the more disturbed feel of early American underground comics. Together, the line art and color design paint an unsettling atmosphere that completely meshes with the bizarre, cryptic narrative Hine pens.
Bulletproof Coffin is not just innovative for Hine and Kane's dissection of the mainstream, superhero genre, but also because it asks more from its audience. Rarely are graphic novel mysteries this multitextured and developed, and even the most perceptive reader will need a second round of the book to appreciate fully Hine and Kane's mastery here. Unfortunately under the radar for some audiences, Bulletproof Coffin is a testament to originality and inventiveness in the medium. Image Comics also deserves credit for supporting and developing such an important project. Fans of the superhero narrative, the history of comics, and the metatextual crossroads of contemporary comics will delight in this book.
Reviewed by Nathan Wilson on July 13, 2012