Friday, 29 April 2016

A Page 45 Review: The Puma Blues

The Puma Blues
by Stephen Murphy & Michael Zulli
(Dover Books, 2015) 
Eisner Award Nominee! 
Best Archival Collection/Project: Comic Books

PAGE 45:
(from a review by Stephen Holland, Page 45 co-founder)
"Intelligent and urgent mythology for the end of the millennium," wrote Neil Gaiman.

I'm not sure when. It could have been any time during the last two decades since this last saw print, and it's never been completed until now with a new forty-page conclusion by Murphy and Zulli.

Rich in wildlife, the howling coyote on its own seems worth the price of admission to me. It's just a shame there were any humans - on so many levels and indeed ever in this context.

A forward-thinking forewarning about "environmental degradation" and "ecological ruin", as the series kicks off we have already poisoned our waters with acid rain to the extent that they have become poisonous to giant Manta Rays which have instead taken to the skies and hang from branches by their prehensile tails like bats.

Imagine poisoning the air that we breathe to the extent that cities become toxic to humans! Oh. Wait. We have. We did it in England following the Industrial Revolution, a lesson we singularly failed to learn from. Hello China! *waves*

It's a miracle that much of this material ever saw print at all, for its publishing history - after the most unlikely but promising start at Dave Sim's Aardvark One International - contains all kinds of crazy, caught as it was in petty comic-industry squabbles, very much an innocent victim of distributor Diamond USA's vindictive belligerence.

SWAMP THING's Stephen Bissette is on hand with a sweeping fourteen-page afterword explaining every element of that (which I remember all too well), providing also an overview of the aesthetics and intentions behind what was in part a very personal story written by Stephen Murphy who was working through the loss of his father and wandering alone round the shores of the Quabbin Reservoir in search of a real, live puma. Perhaps he was shadowed by one of these "ghost cats" but failed to spot it, much like the protagonist here.

What I don't remember in enough detail is the series itself so I confess that this is more of a dim recollection than a review. I don't have time to re-read five hundred and fifty pages at this time of year.

Melancholic, elegiac, some pages were dense in reverie and introspection while others left Zulli to wow you with wildlife. Even so, I'm not trying to sell you this as something as Attenborough-accessible as the magnificent, painted, natural world graphic novels LOVE: FOX or LOVE: TIGER. One of the joys of a collection like this at the beginning of an artist's career is seeing her or him develop on the page. Much is made of Zulli's love of the Pre-Raphaelites which he shared with Barry Windsor-Smith, but a glance at the earlier human-centric pages shows also shows a huge debt to Bryan Talbot's ADVENTURES OF LUTHOR ARKWRIGHT too.

The flying Manta Rays, however, are a fine example of what to expect. Doesn't that sound so romantic, like the moments of dazzling, fantastical glory in Shaun Tan's THE ARRIVAL? But they'd only taken to the skies because we poisoned their natural habitat, the air that they breathe: water. In case you believe that Murphy and Zulli held out any hope for the future of this planet's ecosystems, towards the end the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse - whilst un-sign-posted by Murphy - rode unmistakeably into town (town being the irradiated sands of a Nevada nuclear test crater) to declare in Spanish with a confident finality:

"The Earth is ours."

All of which brings us to the four-page PUMA BLUES self-contained short story written by Alan Moore and pencilled by Stephen Bissette then inked by Mike Zulli. It's reprinted in the back here following Bissette's lucid introduction.

Alan Moore has a commendable history of rescuing life from death; specifically life from death through sex.

Sex and death have been intertwined since Shakespearian times when "to die" meant to orgasm. But when AIDS reared its awful head and Thatcher sought to criminalise education in her repugnant Clause 28, Alan Moore wrote a passionate same-sex love poem entitled 'The Mirror Of Love'. He then went on to write the LOST GIRLS graphic novel for Melinda Gebbie to illustrate. It was set on the eve of war, when so many young men were about to be sent to obliterate one another at precisely the same time in their lives that they should have been procreating instead. Gebbie eventually became Alan's wife, and don't you just love the idea of a piece of literary erotica being born by two beautiful people in love?

Here he takes the air-borne Manta Rays' risky but thrilling new mating ritual, copulating in the sky, entering each other at twenty miles an hour then plummeting in oblivious, post-coital free-fall towards to the water below which will kill them if they can't break off from their ecstasy in time.

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