The battle for creator’s rights in mainstream comics seems a bleaker and bleaker situation with each passing day. It seems appropriate that SIX-GUN GORILLA would be released the same week we would get to see Alan Moore’s write-up of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the two young comics creators who sold Superman to DC for a little over a hundred dollars and are, at turns, dismissed by the comics fan community for not taking the responsibility to get themselves a better deal, derided for being the symbol for creator rights, or simply ignored. Despite all of these (yes, in a relative sense, rather small) injustices and others that Moore explores, it was one of his typical barbs at Grant Morrison that I’ve been thinking about the most –
“Lately there have been attempts to mitigate the industry’s offence with an appeal to half-baked mysticism and postmodernism, maintaining that Superman and the commercial children’s comic characters which followed him are all in some sense archetypes that hover in the ether, waiting to be plucked by any lucky idiot who passes by.”
As a guy who thinks about FLEX MENTALLO at least once a day, this statement really shook a lot of my beliefs. Moore goes on to explain that by making the act of creation some sort of romantic, spiritual tradition dating back to the days of myth we’re actually diminishing and belittling the perfectly ordinary human beings who actually did the work of creation. By making creation an act of divinity we’re not only taking away the sheer awe we should feel in witnessing supreme human achievement, but we’re taking away the idea that art is a service that should receive monetary reward. If it is just about being born one of the lucky few who can tap into this ether, maybe we lose the truly spectacular thing about creating a character as resonant as Superman.
Because to really understand how amazing Superman is, we may have to take time to consider the countless failed and forgotten creations that other human beings tried to make ‘Myths’ of. SIX-GUN GORILLA was one ape’s quest to avenge the death of his human master in a British magazine called WIZARD, a deliciously bizarre and unforgettable concept. Simon Spurrier and Jeff Stokely have taken the task to reinvent the character, using the characters obscurity as the central theme of the story. Dedicated to ‘creator unknown’, Spurrier doesn’t hide the fact that he’s exploring the origins of legends and stories – beyond the titular primate hero, the series protagonist is an ex-librarian.
More specifically, he’s an archivist, his job being to collect and categorize “pulp stories, detectives and adventurers and space-pilots.” Honestly, it’s a testament to Spurrier’s skills as a writer that he can sell a bit like this – a pulp archivist starring in a story about a forgotten pulp character may seem a little on the nose, but Spurrier approaches the character in such a passionately human way that we’re moved by the story of the heartbroken, suicidal introvert more than we aware of the meta-narrative tricks Spurrier is up to.
Not to say that SIX-GUN GORILLA isn’t obscenely and gloriously meta. Just as to understand FLEX MENTALLO you have to figure out what exactly those Atlas ads mean to you, to even begin to penetrate SGG you have to consider the western. The grand American mythology of the old world dying and a new one being born, the idea that our ability to find strength withing ourselves to rise above corruption. Almost every western story (as well as every revenge story, a genre SGG also belongs to) is about one person’s ability to sacrifice everything for their morals, and even if our meek archivist doesn’t look like a John Wayne, Clint Eastwood or even Franco Nero, it looks as if he does fit this bill.
It’s the future, and if you’re tired of living your life, there’s an option for you. You can voluntarily sign yourself up to Bluetech, a massive entertainment network that promises spectacular human death, all played out before it’s billions of ever-streaming fans apathetic eyes. Basically, it’s a sadistic Truman Show, reality TV focused even more on spectacle and human suffering. Our protagonist, oddly enough also named Blue, has signed up after losing his lover and his job after not being able to give complete attention to either one.
Bluetech is portrayed as the heartless epitome of corporate culture, measuring data and trends without having any respect for intellectual stimulation or art. The viewers of Bluetech get a similarly cynical treatment – brain dead slugs who bemoan any moment of characterization or story, pleading the show continue with it’s visuals of death. It’s hard not to think of Steven Soderbergh’s recent and immediately viral story of a man he shared an airplane trip with, watching a Hollywood blockbuster on his iPad and skipping past any and all story, wishing to only see the CGI explosions and billion-dollar stunts.
It’s hard not to feel apocalyptic when seeing the continued dominance of reality TV or the incredible success of another heartless and empty piece of ‘destruction porn.’ That being said, Spurrier isn’t taking a rather tired and predictable cheap shot at mass media – the world of SIX GUN-GORRILA is a world without stories, a world where fiction has been forgotten in it’s entirety, just as we’ve forgotten so many characters and creators today. Spurrier seems to be asking why we need stories – and why certain stories become global icons. Would we lose an essential part of our humanity if all we had was spectacle and entertainment? Do we need to be challenged by different perspectives than ours, or at least inspired by human compassion and the ability to connect with others?
Obviously Spurrier thinks so, because in the world of SGG, stories haven’t actually disappeared – that would be impossible, I think – they’ve just become even more a part of our selves. Stories are such a large part of our lives from birth that the argument can easily be made that we’re all living out a fiction of our own, but when Blue encounters a dying old man whose last wish is to see an amulet returned to his wife, our awkward and meek ex-librarian explodes. “I was supposed to die! Not you! All I want’s…[is to] die right.” Blue resents another human being interrupting what was supposed to be his own story, the conclusion of which he already sees clearly in his mind.
Jeff Stokely’s art is the perfect fit for Spurrier’s eccentric sci-fi/western, kinetic figures that flail across the page with whips for arms, plenty of searing action lines to further increase the sense of movement. It’s hard not to mention Guy Davis or Jeff Lemiere, two similarly strong and unique sensibilities that Stokely can be easily compared to. Wonderful character acting an extremely stylized character designs are Stokely’s strengths, but he’s also very good at creating an engulfing atmosphere, and Spurrier’s script calls for several different ones. From the rugged loneliness of Bluetech’s desert, to the cold impersonality of their corporate offices, to the subversive irony in the opening scene, Stokely’s art sells it all.
SIX-GUN GORILLA is one of the best mainstream comic debuts of the past decade – intelligent but never pompous, meta but never too painfully clever, moving but never maudlin, ironic and funny but never pandering. It’s an exciting and funny genre mash-up on only the thinnest of layers, but even that element of the comic is handled with aplomb. Alan Moore may have me questioning just where ideas come from and what our responsibility as fans is in replacing that place of origin, but SIX-GUN GORILLA is a less cold and clinical examination of that very question. Spurrier delights in challenging us while also amusing us – he really is the impish trickster of the current comics landscape, working for big publishers on corporate franchises while gleefully questioning their practices along the way. SGG is a perfect first issue, and I recommend highly to join me for what is sure to be a hell of a ride.