Tuesday, September 8, 2009

To Do Is To Be: Katman

Rob reviews the new teen-aimed comic by Kevin C. Pyle, KATMAN (Henry Holt).

Kevin C. Pyle's career has seen him split time between political comics (most notably WORLD WAR III ILLUSTRATED) and comics aimed at teens. His particular skill in the latter area is homing in on a particular crisis moment and playing it out past the point of comfort. BLINDSPOT dealt with the intersection of fantasy life and reality and the ways the former could prove destructive to the latter. His newest book, KATMAN, is about the ways fantasy can be redemptive, along with providing a stark (if simple) example of the existentialist's dilemma. What is identity? What is meaning? What does it entail to live a meaningful life? What role do others have in this dilemma? Pyle does this with a surprising amount of restraint, avoiding too much angst or melodrama. He accomplishes this with his washed-out, scribbly art depicting real-life events (a bit reminiscent of Frank Stack in places) and a decent amount of verisimilitude with regard to dialogue. There's very little humor to be found here, nor is there really meant to be. The one way in which Pyle visually spices up the book is a device where one character is drawing an over-the-top manga about the protagonist; those segments are all in red and pop off the page, providing an obvious contrast to the relatively dreary lives of everyone else.

The cover is actually a bit misleading. The huge Katman image and electric logo dominates the page, with the duller aspects of real life blending together toward the bottom of the page. It looks as though the cover was meant to grab manga fans' attention, even though though this comic is not manga. Indeed, a reader expecting that sort of comic would likely be baffled for most of the early portion of the book, as we meet Kit and are introduced to his rather aimless existence. The book initially focuses on categories and identity, as Kit notes that he lives in a low-income neighborhood, that his single mom works incredibly hard, and that his brother is a slightly socially awkward academic overachiever. His brother is perfectly happy with that role and pushes Kit to find his own meaning (mostly as a way to get him out of the house).

Kit is observed by a group of outsiders, which included a headbanging satanist type, an Asperger's-esque video game addict, a manga-loving artsy girl, and a generic aloof guy. Kit decides to follow stray cats around as he wandered around the neighborhood, and then made it his mission to feed them. He became so single-minded in his pursuit that he defied his mother, stole from a local store and even befriended the local "crazy cat lady" to make sure the cats were fed. He eventually came to an agreement with the store owner, who sympathized with his concern, and approached the cat lady when he learned some of his neighbors wanted the stray cats gone. Throughout all this, the outsiders approached him and tried to size him up, with the artist (named Jess) taking an interest in Kit's weirdly obsessive nature.

More to the point, she admired his willingness to embrace being a true outsider without feeling a need to construct an identity for himself other than one who found it important to do something for other living beings. That brought a tension between herself and the others in her group, especially the aloof guy Rip. Her conflict in the book was trying to resolve her unspoken attraction to Rip (which was not reciprocated beyond a juvenile attempt to control her behavior) and her growing attraction to Kit (which played itself out in the manga avatar she created for him called Katman).

The low-key drama of the main story is expanded and exploded on the page when we see her artistic output, as she imagines the unassuming Kit becoming a fierce hero in the face of all sorts of adversity thanks to the steadfastness of his ideals. Her choice became a simple one: tearing down vs building up, or nihilism vs trying to create one's own set of meanings. For a teenager, these choices are, by their very nature, melodramatic and seem larger than life. In that sense, the manga pages made sense in how much they assaulted the senses. That said, they were nowhere near as effective in getting across the fantasy life of a character as in BLINDSPOT, for the simple reason that many of the pages were busy to the point of being difficult to read. Part of it was the choice of color: making everything red on red was confusing. I found myself flipping through these pages quickly so as to get back to the main narrative. This left the character of Jess feeling a little undercooked as a result: the pages that were supposed to provide emotional resonance for her wound up being distractions.

Still, the character of Kit wound up being enormously compelling, precisely because he was so difficult to pigeonhole. He simply woke up one day and figured out that this was what he was going to do, and that nothing would change his mind. The denouement of the book, featuring his immediate plans going to pieces but the courage of his convictions eventually leading to a happy ending, was perhaps a bit more pat than expected. Pyle pulls it off because he did such a fine job in establishing Kit's sheer willpower and devotion; there was no doubt as a reader that he would find a way to get what he wanted in the end. I liked the way that Pyle depicted the interactions between Kit and his brother, an easy and brutally honest form of mutual aggravation and affection. The interactions among the outsiders are a little less interesting, but they're more devices to play off the leads than fully-formed characters. All told, the way Pyle modulated emotion through subtle manipulation of color (in the main narrative) and the looseness of his line made for a memorable character study.

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