Some fifteen years ago, I found myself embroiled in a high-stakes online debate about the nature of cool. As is often the case in these internet discussions, tension got high and those involved found themselves taking up positions that might not fully fit with their actual opinion. That is, until one of the participants had the idea of sharing a short comic story called, The Critical Mass Of Cool, which he had scanned from an old issue of Heavy Metal. In this story, a quintessentially 80s cool dude (sunglasses, borsalino, cigarette) mocks a woman for wanting to buy Billy Joel tickets, and immediately ascends to cool heaven, taken up by the Gods of Cool: John Belushi, Marilyn Monroe, Jimi Hendrix, Humphrey Bogart and, above all, Elvis. The story shut us all up – while confirming that there was indeed something that could be objectively labeled as “cool”, it is above all a superficial, male, juvenile obsession. This was the first time I saw the great and idiosyncratic art of American cartoonist Paul Kirchner, one of the more elusive and mysterious creative geniuses on my radar.
After the success of their collection of Kirchner’s strip, The Bus (so much so that he created a whole new set of strips for a second volume), French publisher Tanibis now presents a new collection of his work. Awaiting The Collapse is a lavish, full colour book, with some 150 pages of strips and illustrations from 1974 to 2014 as selected by the master himself. Much of the artwork has been (re)coloured, and Kirchner has also provided numerous new spot illustrations throughout the book, as well as a lengthy postscript, in which he reminisces on his career, the people he worked with and how he always sought his own way.
The strips themselves largely fall into two categories. First, there’s a selection of Dope Rider stories that Kirchner created for High Times magazine in the 1970’s (and apparently is picking up again). These shorts typically combine a pastiche of clichés from westerns with over the top, surrealist scenery and dialogue. The artwork is sublime, combining elements from dope culture with Escher, Bosch and Dali and starring the absurd, skeleton everyman in situations that break any wall, not in the least the fourth.
In a number of longer stories, predominantly created for Heavy Metal, Kirchner deals with heavy subjects like awareness, oppression, predestination and magic, with story lines often set against a fantasy / space opera backdrop not unlike Moebius or Druillet. The book contains no less than three stories that, in my opinion, are quintessential reading for every comic art enthusiast (and I’m not even counting The Critical Mass Of Cool). Tarot is a poetic meditation on self-importance and hubris, on love conquering all, while Hive illustrates how knowledge and insight can never be unlearned. Finally, Shaman, the more traditional story of the lot, is a beautiful rendition of the continuing battle between true power and pretense, with some of the most magnificent pages I have ever seen.
Finally, the book also contains a number of covers and strips that Kirchner created for 1970s porn magazine Screw, including the delightful if quite obscene Dolls at Midnight. Looking at these forty years on, it’s above all quaint how this type of sexual fetishism was supposed to be contributing to the liberation of the people, with exclusively women presented as more or less naked objects for the pleasure of a male gaze.
Awaiting the Collapse is an important book, if only because it collects material that would otherwise be scattered among dollar bins and collectable back issues. It’s also a striking portrait of the views and visions of a certain counterculture that seems to have faded with the times. Above all, though, it is a glorious salute to one of the best, yet unsung stylists of modern comics.
Paul Kirchner, Awaiting the Collapse. Tanibis, 2017. ISBN 978-2-84841-044-9. 25 Euros.