Damian Duffy & John Jennings, The Hole: Consumer Culture, Volume 1 (Front Forty Press, 2008); $30.00, hardcover.
By Jared Gardner
To say that The Hole is ambitious is the understatement of the year. It strives to be nothing less than a Waste Land for the graphic novel renaissance, and it shares with Eliot’s modernist manifesto a decidedly bleak (but by no means entirely hopeless) view of the world we have inherited. It also shares with The Waste Land a serious level of difficulty, and most readers looking for a quick skim are going to be frustrated by what they find here: a narrative that plays with time like an accordion, an unresolved conclusion that is simultaneously hopeful and apocalyptic, allusions and references to religious and mythological figures that are at times opaque and even willfully obscure, and a deep disdain (one worthy of Eliot himself) for modern consumer culture that is likely to leave few readers feeling completely smug or innocent. But this is also, as they define the book, a scifi/horror comic, and Duffy and Jennings never lose sight of the generic pleasures and conventions of their chosen media. Like Eliot, or (a more satisfying example, since Eliot was ultimately a big prig) like a hip hop artist, it is what we choose to build (as artists, as readers) from the festering fragments of our modern world that matters.
As the allusion to The Waste Land probably suggests, much won’t make sense the first time through, and Duffy and Jennings are clearly counting on readers patient and committed enough to work it through in steady loops. For example, early in the book, a still unnamed protagonist (Curtis) is confronted by an armed thug demanding his money. He fantasizes about beating the thief down but then flashes on a memory of another act of violence, which only later do we realize is a memory of him beating up a woman while stoned on heroin. He makes the decision not to fight back, and we see a woman beaming at him from behind, a woman we will only much later realize is the younger version of his mother. Confused? You will be, but most of the time you won’t mind, because the energy and smarts of the book will leave you confident that it all connects if only you are willing to do the work to put the pieces back together.
The book bounces back and forward in time--sometimes with clear markers, sometimes not. Early in the book, a narrator asks us if the “time stamps [are] helping, or have I lost you yet?” Making matters still more fraught, this narrator turns out to be a most unreliable manifestation of Legba, an already difficult and contradictory African deity who came to the New World through the horrors of the Middle Passage centuries ago. Legba is by definition a paradoxical deity--as Dana Rush tells us in the introductory essay, “simultaneously young and old, constructive and destructive, wise and wanton.” The problem here is that Legba’s contradictions seem to have splintered off from themselves, the wise Old Man at the crossroads no longer able to check and balance the wanton and voracious young man of appetite and ambition.
The reasons are spelled out (perhaps a bit heavy-handedly) in the subtitle: “Consumer Culture.” The very balance of nature is out of alignment in a world of instant gratification and the endless exploitation of African culture that must nourish Legba for future generations. Here Legba and black culture in general are emptied of meaning, tossed around as marketing devices or consumer products. And these conditions have allowed Legba’s appetitive manifestation not only to “outgrow” him, but to leave him entirely--to become something completely new: a sun-glass wearing whiteboy with a copyright symbol for a third eye. As Papa Legba warns, the very fate of the world is now a terrifying thing to behold.
The one ray of hope in the book is the hair salon and tattoo parlor, Faded Ink, owned by Curtis’s mother. Here we see a local black-owned business where craft is celebrated, where open political discourse runs free (and loud), and where people still talk to each other as human beings. Here in the tattoo parlor, instead of being consumed by popular culture, popular culture is itself consumed, reworked, remade in the fleshy, living art of tattoos. This is placed in direct opposition to Carla Bonté’s voodo emporium, where Afro-Caribbean culture is packaged and sold, and where the darkest most irrational manifestations of Legba are nourished on greed and jealousy. In fact, in this world old man Papa Legba is all-but homeless: the only interior space we see him settling down to a meal is the salon, a sign that it is spaces like this that we need if the Greed and Violence of Legba’s natures are to be balanced again by his wisdom and vision.
Aspects of this book reminded me of Gaiman’s American Gods, especially the vision of the new gods of commerce and technology threatening to usurp the place of the neglected traditional gods of the Old World. And as with American Gods, some of the satire of consumer culture comes off a bit already-dated, as all such references do. It is, after all, part of the power of capitalism to have always already neutralized in apathy and irony any potential critique. As our narrator (who markets himself as an action figure named “White Peter”) says, “The revolution will be televised… It’ll be a low rated midseason replacement, cancelled after two episodes.” But even as the parodies of violent video games, reality TV, and animations designed to teach young girls how to become “super sparkly” shoppers seem at times a bit easy, Duffy and Jennings get them just right, touching on them just long enough to lighten the tone and underscore some larger arguments in a book that increasingly tends (again, like Eliot’s masterpiece) toward the abstract and metaphysical.
The second half of the book is where the going gets really weird. Our two wayward youth, Trina (daughter of voodoo entrepreneur, Carla) and Curtis come together, literally, as a hole in Curtis’s midriff opens up and devours her while she is in the act of, um, consuming him. Together the two forge some less-than-perfect union, and this is when things get especially hard to follow. As a monstrous superpowered freak, Carla/Curtis takes on the dark agent in an old-fashioned superhero battle…. And that is where our capacity for plot summary gives out. But I’m happy to go along for the psychedelic ride. Jennings’ dazzling layouts, which are mind-bending throughout, really take off in the book’s final pages, and it is a huge (and deliberate) letdown when our narrator takes over again with promises of a sequel whose preview is deliberately illustrated in a much more restrained style, santized for your easy consumption. But that is the story our far-from-trustworthy narrator would tell, and I am confident that the sequel we do get will resist him every step of the way.
Of course, there is a painful irony here. The Hole: Consumer Culture leaves much unresolved and unanswered: how will Papa Legba defeat his evil former-twin? What will become of Curtis and Trina and the new creation they have melded into? What will become of Carla and the Fate of the World? Since a fair amount hangs in the balance, I am eager for the answers, but I know that the sequel depends in great measure on precisely the consumer culture the book decries at every turn. Published by a small boutique press and distributed by an academic publisher, this beautiful, challenging, mind-altering book is going to be a tough sell to comic stores and mainstream bookstores alike. And without sales, will we get our sequel? That is, without consumer culture, can we restore the balance to the world that consumer culture has shattered? The answer for Duffy and Jennings clearly lies in the model of Faded Ink, the family-owned, community-centered, craft-based space where exchange is inspired by art, love and politics. This is the kind of exchange of both capital and ideas that they wish to create with this book (and it is one that they have been carefully nourishing for some time at their small collective, Eye Trauma Comix).
So you heard it here first, folks. The Fate of the World hangs in the balance. Buy this book, read this book, and then read it again. You will be richer for it, as will all of us. Now, on with the crazy-ass show!