Monday, 23 May 2016

The Puma Blues: AV Club Review

The Puma Blues (Dover Books, 2015)
by Stephen Murphy & Michael Zulli, with Alan Moore
Forward by Dave Sim, afterword by Steve Bissette

"Without it, any well-stocked comics library should be considered incomplete."

(from a review by Tim O'Neil at AV Club, 26 January 2016)
While it is no longer accurate to call The Puma Blues a truly lost work in the same manner as, say, Alan Moore’s Big Numbers, it certainly came uncomfortably close to a similar oblivion. Miraculously complete it returned, however, at the tail end of 2015, a strange artifact from another era. Now that it's back, a bit of explanation is in order.

In 1986 nobody had ever heard of Michael Zulli or Stephen Murphy. Dave Sim (of Cerebus fame) knew the moment he saw Zulli's work that Zulli would be a star, and so resolved to become his first publisher. Up to that point Zulli and Murphy were just two New England comics fans, but the moment the first issue of The Puma Blues saw print in 1986, it was obvious that both men would go on to have long and prolific careers in the world of comics. And that's what happened, even if The Puma Blues itself fell by the wayside.

The original run of The Puma Blues lasted from 1986 to 1989. Sim published the first 19 issues, even after the series fell victim to an ongoing dispute between Sim and his distributor. Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird's Mirage Studios picked up the reins after that for a few issues, but the series ended three issues shy of its projected conclusion. Zulli went on to illustrate issue #13 of The Sandman -- that's the first one with William Shakespeare -- among other things. Murphy went to work on Eastman and Laird’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, both as a creator on multiple iterations of the TMNT comic book and later behind the scenes involved in creative and marketing at Mirage. The Puma Blues receded further into the background, a cult object that looked most likely to remain forever unfinished.

Now The Puma Blues has finally been completed, and compiled between two covers by the new MVP of archival comics presentation, Dover Publications. It seems almost lazy to call the work sui generis, but nothing really serves to adequately summarize such a surpassingly odd but also supremely affecting work. While the work begins as a near-future sci-fi story -- set in the far-flung future of 1997! -- it eventually grows to encompass pseudo-autobiography, New Age mysticism, conspiracy literature, UFO-logy, and natural history. More than anything else, the book is an environmental fable, and even though some of the ecological particulars have changed in the ensuing 30 years, the overall attitude of planetary urgency, tinged with anti-government paranoia, remains an all-too current sensation.

The Puma Blues is one of those books that could only exist in comics, a highly personal tour de force by two artists still too young to understand the preposterousness of such a doggedly uncommercial enterprise. It's gorgeous. Dover's hardcover edition, weighing in at 560 pages and four-and-a-half pounds, is an intimidating package. There’s an extended introduction by Sim, an extended afterward by Stephen Bissette, and a rare four-page story by Alan Moore. Plus, of course, the brand new 40-page conclusion by Murphy and Zulli. Now that it’s done The Puma Blues can take its rightful place alongside the period’s other great monuments, such as Moore and Campbell's From Hell and Gaiman's Sandman. Without it, any well-stocked comics library should be considered incomplete. 

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