Monday, November 19, 2012

Feeling Dizzy: Hector Umbra


The feeling I got from reading German cartoonist Uli Oesterle's book Hector Umbra (translated into English and published by Blank Slate Books) was that it was a collection of a lost Vertigo series from the 90s, only drawn by Bob Fingerman and colored by Mike Mignola. It's as weird and funny as a Peter Milligan comic of the time, only without the psychosexual aspects of that writer's work. It's a book that revolves around nightlife and youth culture, but from a slight distance. The titular character has just lost his lifelong best friend as the book opens and is in mourning even as he's attending a major performance from his DJ friend Osaka. There's lots of drinking, partying and carousing going on in this book, but it's all a secondary consideration of the main character's grief and the mystery plot that soon opens up when Osaka disappears from his gig, right in the middle of his set.

That distance from youth forms the crux of the book's themes, as Hector and others first try to escape and then must ultimately face the events that proved to be formative, for good and ill. It's a comic about mental health and the quite literal obstacles that prevent us from achieving it in the face of the Neurological Infiltration Front, a group of tiny, intelligent "brain demons" who seek world domination through the use of Osaka's music and the special piece they make him write that they know will induce madness. They're the creatures that cause delusions, paranoia and spiteful behavior, and Oesterle simultaneously plays them for laugh in his design (they look very much like the Mars Atacks! cards drawn by Wally Wood) and amps up their menace in their actions. The NIF's chief advantage is that are invisible to nearly everyone--with Hector being a notable exception. His ability to see and act against them makes him an initially reluctant protagonist, until he's contacted by his dead friend, who tells him to sober up and find Osaka.

From there, the structure of the plot is fairly conventional: Hector picks up more allies (including reuniting with an ex-girlfriend) and faces more dangers (like the Jehovah's Witnesses, who are easy dupes of the NIF) until the climactic rave party in a cathedral, where the blood from an unconscious Hector saves the day. What really saves the day, however, is the way Hector makes connections and starts to grow up. He bonds with a young boy faced with being an orphan in much the same way Hector was. He no longer rejects commitment and embraces being with his ex-girlfriend (a pleasant-enough character who is mostly a cipher). Coming to terms with one's youth in Oesterle's terms means no longer acting like a child. This was a lesson that Hector's best friend Joseph was unable to learn (he died by accident by continuing to walk the razor's edge) and Osaka was unwilling to learn (thanks to his carefully-constructed double life). Even their fellow traveler Frantisek, a notorious ladies' man, settles down. In Oesterle's world, stasis equals death. It's a point of view that I found to be refreshingly idealistic, blasting through the expected, Vertigo-inspired veneer of cynicism.

Another influence in this book seems to be Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere. That manifests partly in the form of Gilda Black, a street person who actually holds a number of keys to the resolution of the plot in terms of secret knowledge. Just as Neverwhere is a book that was a love letter to London and its secrets, so too is Hector Umbra a love letter to Munich and its bars, clubs, metro system, old buildings, and new structures. Oesterle is quite adept at the clever high concept in this book like the NIF, and the Jehovah's Witnesses acting as thugs, and the literal manifestation of anxiety. He imbues even the villains with fully-realized personalities and motivations. Other clever turns from Oesterle include the concepts of Club Beyond (a nightclub where the dead gather to drink dead beer and watch "reality TV"--edited highlights of the living) and Klub Koma (a sleepy bar that's a waiting area for the near-dead). What he does best is turn cliche' into real connections, especially when a flashback reveals how and why Hector and Joseph got to be friends in the most horrifying of circumstances as children in an orphanage. Hector is far from a John Constantine type of character; he's not a manipulative, calculating cynic who long ago lost his soul. Hector is simply someone who lost his way and needed some help finding it again, by way of helping a friend. Despite all the shenanigans, fights, and confrontations, the book is very much about the warmth of true friendship. As such, Oesterle may have been strongly influenced by the look of a number of different artists, but the actual content of his work is quite different from Mignola or Vertigo.

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