Atrocity Exhibition: First Draft 3000+ word sprawl reaction to Brandon Graham’s Multiple Warheads

So what follows here is the 3000+ word sprawl that is the first draft of my review of Brandon Graham’s comic “Multiple Warheads: Alphabet to Infinity”.  I’m sharing it because it’s kind of a mess right now—and like with my Toppi piece—my end goal is a slim 1500 word piece for ComicsAlliance.  The problem here is that there are a few divergent goals competing in my analysis in terms of how I’m trying to discuss things.  So I think this is like four different articles all entangled in one another.  I have to disentangle the part of this that is just the review of the book—and section out some of the sections on gender and sexuality—and make those their own things unto themselves.  But I thought before I went through that process it would be useful to share this as a monstrosity—in much the same way that I share unfinished pages from my own comics.  So this is sort of a WIP post.  This is a long sort of intro here.  But another thing is that I feel that Multiple Warheads is a book that is deserving of a lot of levels of critical analysis beyond simply whether it is worth it for you to buy or not.  I think it’s one of the more valuable works of comics that has come out recently in terms of things we can learn about where the medium is at—how it can function—and what kind of sci-fi stories we can begin to tell with it.  I credit Darryl Ayo hugely with making me feel constantly guilty about not already having ten articles on this book out already.  In terms of how I think about writing about comics right now—there’s not someone that makes me think more.  His twitter feed is a treasure trove of things to challenge your brain with in terms of comics. 


Multiple Warheads is a series created by Brandon Graham(King City, Prophet) which started out in porn comics and from there has sprawled into one of the most captivating and entrancing works of science fiction in western comics since the heyday of Metal Hurlant.  And while it isn’t required to enjoy Alphabet to Infinity that you have read and understand the origins of the series to this point—it does give us a lot of the baseline tools for being able to discuss Alphabet to Infinity.  Multiple Warheads got it’s start as a porn comic.  The origin story of sorts is Sexica uncomfortably smuggling a werewolf penis in her asshole to give to her boyfriend Nikoli as a birthday present so they can have crazy werewolf sex together.  The Fall is the book that spins out of this—which explores Sexica’s role as an organ smuggler, and her relationship with Nikoli.  The Fall is a beautiful book that up until Alphabet to Infinity stood as the highwater mark of Brandon Graham’s abilities as a cartoonist.  It was beautiful in the way that King City was.  But it had a little something extra that King City didn’t have.  Joe from King City is in a lot of ways like Sexica in that he is the loner adventurer character who is beset on all sides by an insanely fleshed world’s desire to suck him down all manner of rabbit holes.  But Sexica has Nikoli to go home to.  And that makes a huge difference in how the books end up reading.  The relationship between Sexica and Nikoli is the heart and tenderness on which the poetry of the book soars.  

The Fall is a beautiful book in it’s own right, and I think would remind anyone of some of the feelings they had the first time they watched Pierrot Le Fou or something like that(there’s nothing like that).  But now with the release of Alphabet to Infinity—it is essentially a prologue.  The rules for Alphabet to Infinity are given to us on the beautiful final sequence of the Fall where Sexica sits atop her and Nikoli’s autonomous car Lenin, as they leave the ruins of their home,watching Snowflakes fall—each snowflake different—and each snowflake with it’s own adventure to tell.  One finally lands on her outstretched tongue and she thinks: “I am covered in a blanket of life and experience”.  She is covered in an interrelated almost infinite amount of stories and digressions that are spinning almost impossible to comprehend all around her at any moment.  In the Fall, Brandon Graham introduces us to this idea—but in Alphabet to Infinity that idea is actually expressed to it’s zenith.

When we open the first issue of Alphabet to Infinity we get two pages—three panels—Sexica/Nik’s car Lenin moving through an expansive snowy space.  This also introduces the central tension of Brandon Graham’s work—which is the creation of space.  One of Graham’s central attributes as a comic maker is his ability to create space on the page.  There is no one in western comics who draws bigger pages—-no matter what the size they are.  His sense of scale, breadth, and composition is incredible in this way—but more than simply how the book looks—this is also the tension narratively in his work—the constant zooming in and zooming out of his worlds.  Everything is animated.  There is not really a comparison in comics or any other medium for the vitality of Graham’s worlds.  Every road sign has a story.  Every building is this way or that way because of a history behind it—that is only barely held back.  Graham creates the constant sensation of a world of stories all competing to try and be told.  It is like in videogame RPGs where there would be elaborate backstories behind all kinds of random items and elements within the game that never really required your participation as a gamer to exist—but they were there in walls of text to be read nonetheless.  The difference here is that all of the elements in Graham’s work carry with them their own sense of importance—so there isn’t a conveyed sense of “well this is nice, but unimportant”.  Characters appear in the background of one arc, only to reappear 30 pages later in the background of some other story—continuing their adventure on the periphery of the core story you are reading.  It is amazing to read—and gives Multiple Warheads a richness of which most of it’s antecedents are in the novel form, not the comic form.  But because of the strength of the comic medium—this attribute is able to express itself with a potency that is uniquely about the core strengths of the comic medium.

There is a memorable sequence in the third issue of Alphabet  to Infinity which illustrates perfectly what I’m talking  about.  One of the devices that plays through Alphabet to Infinity and sort of portends the epic comic that we’re participating in as readers is the chapter breaks.  Even though the work is coming out monthly in single issues—within the issues themselves there is a chapter system that serves to organize some of the movements and digressions of the book.  Anyways.  In the third issue, the title for the 6th chapter is formed by the shadows of these troops that are marching past this hotel bird who has just dropped off Sexica/Nik’s bill for their night’s stay—anyways—they march past this hotel bird—and as they do that you get a description of this hotel bird and what he is about—you see that he collects these ornate egg spoons, and that he usually has four or five breakfasts per day—and one of his favorite things to eat are these little cute quimmy creatures—which you see him steal off of this character moontone who works in a particular kitchen and likes knitting—and who dreads delivering food from this kitchen to this particular foreboding tower that not everyone returns to.  In fact— he has nightmares about this tower.  And so we see him having one of these nightmares in the arms of his lover Moonshine who is himself an erotic dancer at a hangout where two organ hounds from the red city Sex/Nik are from are eating a meal.  We find out that they are wanting to hire Sexica for a job even though she is meant to be on vacation and has been struggling with her calling as a thief vs. her feelings for Nik(in fact one of the central traumas of the character occurs in The Fall where she is away on a job when the rocket smashes her and Nik’s home—she races home hoping that Nik isn’t dead—and finds the rubble and fears the worst(The Fall was made while Graham was living through post 9-11 NY as a note at the end of the book tells us—incidentally)).  

So then we break into the next chapter which is a parallel story involving the bounty hunter Nura who is on a job tracking down these face clone dudes.  In her chapter—there is a big showdown that sets up when she runs into this coat of arms dude from a few issues back, who is riding his ant-eater friend—and before they fight—you see how the Coat of Arms dude got to that spot—and in that flashback—you see him crush the troops from chapter six with an avalanche of snow accidentally—and then he gets chased by those soldiers—and in the process of that births this cyst anteater pal who he rides into meeting Nura.  Do you get how fucking crazy all of that is?  I just described a large chunk of issue three—and you see how organically one thing feeds into the next—and how interlinked this whole world is—even as it is completely expansive.  It is funny, it is irreverent, it is complex, it is poetic and touching.  That all of this links up—that all of these plates stay in the air—and that it is entirely comprehensible—who is even attempting this in comics right now?  Who can?

That this all stays together is because of the intense inter-relation of how Brandon Graham writes, how he draws, how he constructs a page, and how he colors.  I want to get into exactly how it is that all of this inter-relates—and works as a whole.  To do this I’m going to focus primarily on the siege by the Puzzlemen on the Flying whale in the fourth issue of Alphabet to Infinity.  This section opens with the chapter label and a long shot of the floating whale in the distance of some clouds.  It is a grey night—but even so the darkened pink of the trees growing out of the whale’s back place you right in the middle of that page—and you get a serenity and calmness in that image.  Below are a small bank of six panels that are formed in the shape of the symbol that the chapter is. The panels themselves are rounded on the corners(an attributed of most of Graham’s panels—which I think is part of why his comics feel so cozy to read—no violent edges—the panel borders themselves mimic his sort of soft clean line—and the warm way that he gives everything in his worlds their own spirit).  We see in the first panel a breeze rush through the aforementioned trees.  One of the Ian Marx clones plays from his flute—and we see the notes move through the sleepy ship.The next page pulls the grey and long shot of the whale across the page into a lower panel—beneath the Coat of Arms dude undressing to take a relaxing bath.  Again rounded panels blending smoothly into one another.  We see one of the coat of arms guys arms slap the Cyst Ant—we see it as a dialogue balloon exiting from the whale ship in long shot as the puzzlemen ship starts to enter the frame.  It’s that dialogue balloon which stitches those two sections together—the balloon which has already been set up through all of the issues as being able to express images as well as words—comics within comics talking about comics.

On the next page the puzzlemen begin their assault—and begin beheading all of the Ian Marx clones. One of the heads falls off of the whale—falling down the left side of the page—while five panels detached from that moment happen on the right 3/4ths of the page.  This is a little bit of one of the interesting things that Graham does often in Multiple Warheads—which is he will have things take place in spaces on the page where because of the composition of the page—they are almost happening off page.  They are the unseen-seen panel.  He’s playing with how you read comics—the space that he can create on a page—and the emphasis of one sequential moment versus another.  What is funny about this page—is that we learn later the most important thing that happened on the page isn’t the cool fight happening on 3/4ths of the page—but that head falling off in the seen-unseen portion of the page.  In this way Graham can kind of disguise his storytelling hand—while still giving things their moment.  The head falling is it’s own thing and cool in it’s own right—but it doesn’t distract from the cool fight happening to it’s right on the page.  Whereas if the page had been done say in a grid fashion—the emphasis on the head falling would be big enough that it would kind of be what the page itself was about.

Because of how Graham manipulates his layouts around your expectations when reading a comic—he is able to fit more moments and information on a per page basis than comics that hew strictly to a more conventional grid.  This isn’t something you figure out without reading and questioning a shit ton of comics incidentally.  The siege continues for several pages—scoping in and out of panels, dialogue balloons and back and forth across pages—with stray blues and pinks darting across the grey nights.  The role of color in this segment is hugely important.  Not only does it characterize the time and mood of what is happening—but it also helps with the organization of the pages and how they are read.  Your eye moves moves more quickly to certain places because of certain color placements.  This is pretty evident in the two page spread of the ship siege where Nura is whistling for her bike to come help in the fight while she tangles with a puzzleman.  The gray tones of the night that Graham established to this point—allow for a wide shot of the battle on the whale to go across the page as a background—while ever so slightly the colors are brightened in the action dialog panels at the top and bottom of the page—which allows you to focus in on them—even while you get the sense of the geography of the clash.   Because of this Brandon is able to show a ton of things happening all at once at all different scales.  Even as Nura is having a sword fight—we can see the explosive Bored to Death animals boring down through the whale’s skin before landing on the dreaming ship’s captain.  Again it’s this movement between open space to closed space—the sky above you—one individual star.

And then the whale explodes—we hit our climax—just as the sun starts to come up—and we get a serene scene of Nura and her bike in a rescue boat sitting in beautiful yellow toned sky(yellow matching the fires from the explosion of the whale).  It creates a transition in tone—and not coincidentally is another Chapter break.

That’s the nuts and bolts of why reading Multiple Warheads is an experience unlike anything else in comics.  But what is it in service of?  What is this comic? It is tough to thoroughly evaluate a work’s totality when really we’re in the early stages of it’s unfolding—even with these four issues plus the fall.  But we can see particular themes guiding the work.  There are sort of two core stories happening at once(well the book IS called Multiple Warheads after all).  One is the road trip by Sexica and Nik.  The heart of which is the tension between Sexica’s love of Nik, and her natural nature as a thief.  Particularly because the last job she did, Nik nearly died while she was on it.  That trauma seems to have created an either or dichotomy—and in some ways this road trip has become a trial for which side will win out.  This story forms the baseline on which the rest of Multiple Warheads can riff.  Nura’s story is a straight up adventure quest.  Which it’s interesting to transpose the quest narrative againt the road trip one—and see that they lead to similar places—in some ways where Nik/Sex’s story is about running away from the troubles behind them, Nura’s story is the chasing after.  One of the interesting things about Nura is how even though Graham has shown himself quite capable at drawing very gendered distinctions in his characters—there is a level of gender bending to both the Nura character and the third character Moonshine.  In other stories—the character of Nura would be male.  And the character of Moonshine would be female.  But it is Nura the adventurer who is female and Sunshine the exotic dancer who is male.  This allows for another story to be told with the relationship between Sunshine and Moontone—-which as a queer relationship runs in interesting parrallel to Sex/Nik’s heterosexual relationship.  Graham hasn’t really done a huge amount with Sunshine and Moontone yet by this point—but it is interesting to see the relationships that have been set up between the parallel narratives of the different characters and some of the dichotomies they create. In Sunshine and Moontone’s relationship Sunshine worries about Moontone’s job and the dangers of it—that is similar to how Sexica worries about her own job—but the difference is Sexica has agency in her worry—she is making the choice to take a job or not take a job and possibly lose Nik while she is out—whereas Sunshine is the person who is left behind.  Which is a kind of vocalization and warmness we don’t really get out of Nik’s character—even though we know Nik obviously loves Sexica.  At any rate it is interesting to see how these different stories are interrelated and talk to each other—even as the world around them keeps them apart.

On another level the book is about the relationship of these characters to us and themselves through the medium of their interconnected world—and the book is also about the relationship of that interconnected world with us as readers.  Sexica and Nura don’t know when they’ve both encountered a character who is tangentially in the background of the other’s story—but we as readers do—and this serves to create a relationship between us as readers and the world as a whole—which I think is what allows for these characters journeys to be so interesting.

It is monumental work that Graham is attempting with this book.  It is daunting even to try and discuss critically particularly at such an early stage in the work.  Graham has said he intends to put these out in four issue chunks—the sense reading Alphabet to Infinity is that we are still in the very opening stages of this work.  And that a lot is set up to happen.  And there is an unlimited seemingly amount of things to see.  The richness of this world and it’s depiction is unlike any other medium but comics could give you.  Only comics could you have so much information about so many components of a world culture put on a page in a processable manner—while still telling a story through passing time.  Also the wordplay and cleverness that is on display on every page is completely insane.  The puns per page rate of Multiple Warheads surpasses anything that has come before it.  Even as this complex world is unfurled in front of you in really dynamic and beautiful ways—there is a whimsy to every little detail that always rewards you coming back and re-reading.  A stunning achievement that ups the ante on everyone else in the game.  Go get some.

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