May 2012

Martyn Pedler


Digital Ghosts: The Last American and Dapper John

Just before Christmas last year -- according to the LA Weekly -- Christopher Nolan, director of Inception, gathered together some of America's best-known filmmakers for a screening with an "ulterior motive." Nolan wanted to talk to them about how soon 35mm will be a thing of the past, replaced entirely by digital technology.

It made me wonder if a comic book wunderkind would ever meet with the medium's biggest names to make a desperate plea for paper. Artists and publishers are still struggling to understand all that digital comics might mean: the "lowered bar" of online self-publishing; introducing animation for so-called motion comics; how to keep traditional comic book stores from the long, slow descent into bankruptcy...

But another side effect is that I could recently read two books that would otherwise have been out of my grasp. The Last American and Dapper John: In the Days of the Ace Rock 'n' Roll Club, from the early '90s and late '70s respectively, dropped out of print a long time ago. Now they're available again as digital-only works -- and both illustrate a particular kind of cultural archeology.  

Comic books often make the post-apocalypse look like fun: all cool cybernetics and grotesque mutations and talking apes. The Last American says otherwise. Maybe that's why, as Garth Ennis points out in his introduction, it "sank without trace" when published back in 1990. It's written by the prolific team of Alan Grant and John Wagner, best known for their work on Judge Dredd, and drawn by fellow 2000 AD alumnus Mike McMahon. Together they tell the story of Ulysses S. Pilgrim trudging through what's left of America.

World War III is twenty years over. Helpful robots wake disgraced soldier Pilgrim from cryogenic suspension with fresh coffee and orders from the President: "If chaos reigns, you will restore order. If an enemy is in control, you will exact retribution. Your rank will be Apocalypse Commander -- your powers absolute." But Pilgrim quickly discovers the President was wrong. There's no chaos outside. No enemies. No one at all. There are only empty streets and bare bones. "Well screw you, Mr. President," says Pilgrim. "You and your comic book fantasies."

Despite the inherent timelessness of wastelands, The Last American's era is obvious. Did Bert the Turtle sing "Duck and Cover" more often in ironic '90s flashbacks than he did when actually "educating" children back in the '50s? I know I was just the right age to experience the cultural aftershocks of the terror of the bomb, rather than the terror itself. I memorized Douglas Coupland's definition of "Mental Ground Zero" from Generation X -- "The location where one visualizes oneself during the dropping of the atomic bomb; frequently, a shopping mall" -- without ever choosing a place for my own apocalypse.

(And what could be more appallingly '90s than The Last American's dream sequence featuring George Washington performing a satirical rap? For example: "We say 'no' to drugs, rock 'n' roll, and prostitution -- they got no part in our c-c-c-constitution!")

No, The Last American isn't subtle. Its hero's name is Ulysses S. Pilgrim, born at the exact moment as John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and he's unfrozen on Independence Day. The angular and striking artwork positively glows in this retouched digital edition. The greens are radioactive; the reds burn like fire. The writing shifts between fairly functional to genuine poetry, and even the elements that seem clunky at first -- like a TV-fueled robot speaking in clichés -- slowly coalesce.

Pilgrim might be the last human alive, but he's surrounded by other voices. There's his narration, his memories, his delirious fantasies, lines from old advertisements read by robots and lyrics from "The Star Spangled Banner," journals left behind by the dead, and the songs sung by their bitter ghosts. As one of Pilgrim's robot companions says: "I trust that a certain knowledge of popular culture will provide a reassuring familiarity in an otherwise strange and hostile environment." But the environment here is popular culture. An All-American junkyard. Pilgrim's just looking for the one artifact, the one story, that will let him keep on living.

Eddie Campbell's Dapper John comics are also obsessed with history. As Campbell writes in his introduction, the "days" of Dapper John and his Teddy Boy associates "were only ever meant to be halcyon ones, which take place in people's heads, probably before they've even got home and gone to bed. These 'days' ideally would have happened sometime in 1955, but would have to suffice in a transported form, endless revived and repeated twenty years after their ideal moment."

These are photocopied minicomics created in the '70s, telling tall tales of style-obsessed young men in Southend who dance, drink, fight, try to get laid, sometimes succeed, and have long conversations about pop culture. ("Why does 'e keep rattlin' 'is feet?" "He's got this craze on Fred A-bloody-Staire.") While these stories are admittedly fictionalized, they mark the beginnings of Campbell's interest in autobiographical comics -- an interest that would turn into his epic, award-winning ALEC. An enthusiastic review of these comics written by a young (possibly unbearded) Alan Moore also inspired their later collaboration on the Jack the Ripper saga From Hell.

Campbell's now something of a giant of alternative comics, and you can see why even in these rough beginnings. Each issue of Dapper John improves on the one before. His caricature and body language are great from the first issue, but his growing skill with backgrounds -- what to leave in and what to leave blank to imply an entire world -- is fascinating to watch. The boyishness of early chapters deliberately counteracted by a later story "If Monkeys Learn To Fly," told from a young woman's point of view as she hides from the rain, giving confession to a priest.

Dapper John is stories about stories; its Teddy Boys are busy mythologizing themselves and each other, and Campbell's comic just adds another layer of the immortality they crave. One proudly quiffed man tells a conquest he's been a Ted since he was born: "An' when I die... if they care to cut me in 'alf they'll find 'rock 'n' roll' written all through. Like Southend Rock." But he also knows he and his friends are "like a couple of ghosts." Their time's already passed.

These comics have been collected before, but there's something special about this digital edition. (It's only available as an iPad app, I'm afraid.) It's full of extras that are actually interesting, for one: other tangentially-related strips, a new interview with Campbell, photographs from the era, and even Alan Moore's review. Campbell says these extras at least "will not be using up valuable paper resources."

Photocopies always feel a little like ghosts. They fade as the toner runs dry, smudging as the ink rubs off on your fingers. That's part of the magic. When Adrian Tomine had his early mini-comics collected into the book 32 Stories, the format always bothered him: "Maybe I'm wrong," he wrote, "but I feel like there's a different criteria that we apply to a little Xeroxed pamphlet versus a fancy-pants book, and in the translation from one iteration to the other, these comics of mine suffered." The ephemeral nature of the digital Dapper John gives it the same weightlessness. The pages still feel fragile, even if they're glowing glass.

A DJ once told me that there was something special about vinyl beyond the usual audiophile claims. He said, "it takes up room in your life, and so it becomes part of your life." Should the things we love take up room in our lives? Can comics like The Last American and Dapper John win as many hearts without standing on our bookshelves, spines out, to remind us of their titles? When the apocalypse comes they won't leave charred pages for one last lonely man to find and read and hold tight. They'll just be ghosts, like you and me.

Martyn Pedler is a writer and critic in Melbourne, Australia.