Paul Kirchner is a fascinating figure in the world of comics, because he's one of those guys who's worked for everyone, from mainstream to underground. He drew horror stories for DC, was Wally Wood's assistant, and drew strips for Heavy Metal and High Times. He later did licensed work with characters like He-Man, G.I. Joe and the Power Rangers. Then he quit comics and went into advertising for about thirty years, returning to comics after he hit sixty years of age. That's where this collection of the bus, released by French publisher Tanibis Editions, comes into the conversation. They published a collection of his gloriously absurd and surreal the bus strips (originally published in Heavy Metal) in 2012, and it wasn't long before he brought the whole enterprise out of mothballs.
These crisp, black & white strips are an absolute delight to look at, just for the sheer craftsmanship at work. His layouts are impeccable, his use of cross-hatching is flawless, and his smooth line is right at the border of cartoony and naturalistic with regard to his characters. I don't usually rave over an artists's draftsmanship skills as such, because it doesn't mean that they know how to be a good cartoonist. In Kirchner's case, his total control over his line and mastery over the formal and decorative qualities of his strips is crucial because it allows him to establish a hard-and-fast reality with his reader and then smash that reality into smithereens. In these mostly silent strips, Kirchner works hard to establish a premise and then finds ways to totally undermine that premise, all within the rules he's set up. His strips emphasize paradox and the absurd at a conceptual and visual level, and working in both of those areas allows him to fuel gag after gag. Promo material called out names like M.C. Escher in terms of the drawing skill and humorously paradoxical nature of his work, and Gary Larson for the enormously satisfying absurdity of his strips that still work within a logical structure. Consider the strip above. The first panel is a little unusual in that some of the people sitting next to the familiar man with glasses and trenchcoat seem overly dressed. The second panel ups the ante in two ways: making the people even odder-looking while increasing their numbers. The third panel sees fewer of these people. The panel-to-panel transitions are absolutely flawless, including the brief look up from the man in panel two. The reader's eye drops to the second row of panels, where we suddenly have a mystery: where did everyone go? The fifth panel starts to open the possibility of an absurd, impossible solution, and the final panel confirms the reality of that solution: these were beautiful people who are attending a club in the back of the bus, hidden by a fake background. The sixth panel is entirely logical in the context of panels one through five, even if it doesn't make sense outside the context of the strip.
Kirchner plays with perspective, the shift between what is real and what is artifice, and above all else the idea that there are multiple levels of reality that can be peeled back, layer by layer. The trick is that there is no center or end--just more layers. Sometimes the gag is simple, like the above strip where the man doesn't have money for his fare, and he's waved to the back where an overseer in armor and with a whip directs him to row the bus. Sometimes the gag is more complex, like the bus being directed through what turns out to be a labyrinth with no escape. Sometimes Kirchner gets really weird and does a "Busby Beserkly" musical number, an homage to a particular kind of film musical spectacle done entirely with the very few rigid elements from the strip: the man and the bus. The mixture of the simple and the complex produces the tension in the strip that makes each one work so well. Even the ones that aren't laugh-out-loud funny are just enormously satisfying because of their construction, sort of like looking at a Rube Goldberg invention described by Professor Butts. Kirchner's comics have that same beautiful if deranged clockwork quality, like a gorgeously designed set of stairs going to nowhere.