Rob reviews the new book by MK Reed, CROSS COUNTRY (self-published).
"It's rural America. It's where I came from. We always refer to ourselves as real America. Rural America, real America, real, real, America."--former vice-president Dan Quayle.
MK Reed's CROSS COUNTRY is ostensibly about a young man who is forced to travel across the country with his odious former fratboy boss. It's also a vicious takedown of nondescript small town America as well as the monotonous corporate entities that wind up gutting them. Reed's go-to skill as an artist has been her uncanny ability to evoke the way young people speak and act. The way she managed to mine comedy and pathos out of a particular subset of youth culture (urban hipster types) reminded me a bit of the early days of Peter Bagge's HATE in the way that the reader gets a sense of time and place as well as character. Visually, Reed tried to play to her strengths as much as possible. She focused on gesture and expression, zeroing in the pained faces of Ben, the protagonist, and the blankly smug look that was permanently plastered to his boss Greg. The key to the comic's success was the way Reed wrote characters that she had little in common with. While Greg was a strutting, cocky and privileged boor, Reed wrote him in such a way that the reader really understood his point of view.
The story's plot is fairly straightforward: Ben was a few years out of college and trying to figure out his life as a frustrated creative person. He's traveling by car with Greg, the heir to a WalMart-type series of big box stores, sponsoring sweepstakes that were really an excuse to ferret out underperforming stores. Greg was pretty much the personification of the unexamined life: he's stuck in a life of adolescent excess and tastes that's an extension of the soul-crushing corporation that he's an heir to. He eats junk food, seduced underage waitresses and constantly revisited his college days. The tragedy of the character is that no matter how he's chastened (and Reed certainly piles on), the ridiculous largesse he enjoyed made all of his problems go away. There's never any reason for him to grow or evolve, because he can enjoy his life as a perpetual adolescent.
Greg was a perfect (if unwitting) antagonist for navel-gazing Ben, who's the personification of passive frustration. He can't get over his college girlfriend who dumped him, can't revive his dormant creative impulses as a writer, can't confront his boss and is in love with his best friend from afar. He's stuck in a rut and has no one but himself to blame, and the job he's taken for the summer reminds him of this through his recurring nightmares. Ben's story was one of going from passive to active. The first transformative event for him was visiting his old college girlfriend (living in the middle of nowhere) and realizing that she was no longer the same person who dumped him--and he was no longer the same person who was dumped. The second key event was rescuing Greg from being savagely beaten by some townies at a fair in a manner that was humiliating to Greg, but not in a way that he could understand as demeaning. That moment of clever assertion was entirely believable and affecting, as Ben moved from slightly pathetic sad sack to getting his life on the right track, all while never losing his credibility as a character.
Reed has been an ace at this sort of character development throughout her career. What was most interesting in this book to me was the sociopolitical subtext. As much as Reed sneered at the vulgarity of middle America, the book was more of an indictment of lowest-common-denominator corporate culture. The scene where Greg is confronted by two employees of his store who were just fired for swearing was especially delicious, as they were quite aware of the way conglomerates systematically exploit small communities and eradicate local culture and commerce. Ben and Greg are both revolted by the towns they pass through not because they are weird and alien, but because they are all depressingly the same.
Reed's art is serviceable, especially in evoking the personalities of the characters. The bland handsomeness and perpetually blank expression of Greg dominate the page, and the way Reed zoomed in on him, chin in hand, when he was pondering which girl he'd pick up for a one night stand was simply great drawing. Where the book suffers a bit is the occasionally muddy use of greyscale. The book truly cried out for color, especially in scenes involving a lot of shadow and in the stores. There's a garishness to big-box stores that was slightly lost in translation in black & white, and Reed did herself no favors by leaning so heavily on adding so much shading. The book would have looked a bit clearer with either darker blacks or relying on linework. The shading felt like Reed trying to evoke the experience of color, but it didn't quite work. Still, the shading didn't interfere with Reed's ability as a storyteller, especially her interesting panel placement choices, weird angles and time being warped when Greg was getting beaten up. Overall, CROSS COUNTRY was the best-realized of all of Reed's comics to date. It was the most complex, ambitious and visually interesting of her comics, and I will be curious to see how she continues to develop as a draftsman in her career.