Thursday, June 1, 2017

Hurk's Ready For Pop

UK cartoonist Hurk (aka "Lord Hurk") works in the distorted, grotesque underground tradition, but he's always been less about shock and transgression than simply telling funny and over-the-top stories. Ready For Pop is his first long-form work, and it's a love letter and send up to Swinging London, mod culture, Pop Art, pop music, over-the-hill comedians and tough-guy movies. Visually, Hurk also has a little fun referencing French New Wave cinema's tendency toward surrealism on the second page of the story, as there are inexplicable images of a tiny man in a blender, a bird dropping a branch through a window and a gun being fired. Hurk's page design deliberately tries to keep the reader off-balance, as it eschews the use of gutters and tilts up and down at strange angles. There are frequent decorative flourishes that fill empty space (arrows, checkerboard patterns, black & white stripes and other familiar psychedelic patterns) and there's a lot of symbolic language instead of text, The figures are strange and distorted, with long, grotesque faces. Just looking at the single page is a strange and off-putting experience.

What makes the page even better is when Hurk slowly reveals that the page wasn't meant to be obscure or symbolic: it described events that were literally happening. There was a tiny man (pop singer Vic Vox) who was about to be pureed in a blender and served in a milkshake. That's the beginning of the intersection of 60s era British pop music and 60s era British gangster movies. That blender we see at the beginning of the story is a sort of cheeky clue for the reader that this book will put all of Brit 60s culture in a blender in order to see what happens.

The book's central narrative is the race to find an antidote to Vic's shrinking in time to perform on the enormously popular live TV show Ready For Pop, a send-up of shows like Ready Steady Go. The hero of the book is Detective Chief Inspector Ladyshoe, who leads a Scotland Yard team in search of clues. The book unfolds like a storytelling problem that Hurk created for himself, laying down new narrative pipe in chapter after dizzying chapter until finally bringing all the threads together. Along the way we meet a washed-up, alcoholic comedian given a chance to host the show, a string of Vic Vox's rivals that included anarchic Rolling Stones analogues called the Small Pocks, absurd police sketches (a truly inspired gag!), the initiation rites of a local Masonic-type lodge, the ambitions of a young female pop singer & her manager-boyfriend, the sinister machinations of an American cigarette company, assorted charismatic and thuggish British gangsters, gunplay, fisticuffs, billiards halls, assassin monkeys and the like.

The plot is a kind of shell game where one has to be aware at all times as to who has Vic's antidote and if the authorities are aware of this. Where Hurk eventually takes that last shell with the antidote under it was funny and not entirely unexpected, but he fully commits to the bit and goes all the way with it. This is a very British kind of comic with its references, but it's one so ingrained in general pop culture that most readers even a little familiar with the era will easily be able to understand what's going on (and Hurk is sure to spell everything out) and those a bit more steeped in the era will chuckle at Hurk's references. That said, the book is really simply a mash-up between pop music and caper films, an easily digestible concept that is given depth, detail and specificity by staying true to its era. It's the consistency and clarity of the mind-bending visuals that really put the book over the top, giving the book a skewed and psychedelic look without sacrificing storytelling Hurk's single-page splashes signify the beginning of a new chapter, with a wide view of an edifice that's about to have storytelling significance. It's a palate cleanser and rest point for the readers to catch their breath for a moment and chops up the narrative into more easily digestible parts. It also provides a bit of negative space for a story that's so incredibly jam-packed, with even blank spots in panels generally filled by zip-a-tone and other effects. For a story that has shaggy dog qualities, it's Hurk's incredible attention to visual details that make it such an enjoyable and remarkably page-turning ride.

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