Graphic Novel Friday: The Bulletproof Coffin
The Bulletproof Coffin is one of those rare reads that comes out of nowhere and does just about everything right. It stars Steve Newman, who works by day as a “voids contractor,” which involves cleaning up the remains of the violently deceased. Weird perk: Steve gets to sift through their remains and belongings for valuables, namely comics, and add them to his own stash before anyone takes notice. Steve is a “culture vulture” by his own admission, and it’s amidst the particularly grisly bits of his latest gig that Steve finds a rare treasure trove of comics.
According to The Bulletproof Coffin mythos, publisher Golden Nugget Comics “were bought out by Big 2 Publishing in the early Sixties,” yet the comics at the crime scene are direct continuations of long-defunct series. Steve nabs the books and takes them home to his distant and blank-faced family. In his attic, Steve opens issues #198 of The Unforgiving Eye, and then the graphic novel makes a drastic shift to an actual issue of The Unforgiving Eye--compete with cover and introduction, where it begins a brand-new plot under the guise of an actual comic.
It’s a jarring but fun trick, one that is repeated throughout the series as Steve discovers more about the nature of these comics, how they came to be, and who created them. The latter detail takes shape near the book’s end, threatening to collapse in on itself in a “meta” comic to end all meta-comics. Writer David Hine skillfully walks the line between cute plot device and daring execution, never winking too hard at the reader while sending up Silver Age comics and himself. Soon, Steve travels along the plotlines of the comics, dons a costume, and even develops a crush on Ramona, Queen of the Stone Age. Naturally, this type of real life comics crossover is not meant for the general populace and Steve is quickly besieged by the mysterious Shadow Men.
Along with Hine’s wry writing (see the army of zombies referred to as “The Hateful Dead”), The Bulletproof Coffin excels thanks to Shaky Kane’s lurid and deadpan illustrations. This was my first exposure to Kane’s work, and it recalls Jack Kirby by way of a bad trip. Characters are often square-faced and dead-eyed, their movements across panels stiff and somehow knowing. The details are excellent--the grim remains of the Red Wraith decay while beneath a trinket of Steve’s: a smiling, plastic soft-serve ice cream cone. There is plenty of blood and an occasional instance of nudity--mature readers are expected even if, early on, the material can trend juvenile (for example: just about everything having to do with Ramona, who, to be fair, is really a play on the awful “jungle cat” role given to female comics characters). In fact, much of the first issue shows the creators finding their footing, and it’s in subsequent chapters where the book’s tone hits that sweet spot, where the faux ads, pin-ups, and back matter detailing Golden Nuggets Comics’ publishing history blend into a grand whole. Hine and Kane harness dread, cool, and madcap--and they do it in style.
For a book steeped in nostalgia and intent on looking forward while looking back at the history and nature of comics, The Bulletproof Coffin is entirely original. It somehow slipped under the radar of most readers, but it’s worth seeking out for any true culture vulture.