Posted by: Joe McCulloch on July 18, 2007
Hi there. My name is Jog. I will write short reviews for this site. But I will also write this.
I hope you’re enjoying your evening. Or morning. Or whatever time it is. It’s about 2:00 AM here, as I type this. That is fine by me, since I can see the stars very nicely on a clear night like this, and I’ve been thinking about outer space lately. Space travel and comic books. Humor the titanic nerd for a paragraph or two.
If access to the breadth of comics is like access to the eyeball-melting scope of outer space, I dare say we’re living an archetypical 1950s martini-with-your-ray-gun steel rocket dream these days. Oh, there are problems, when you look toward the contemporary. Distribution tremors, complex anxieties over creator recompense, the rock and sway of culture… fan culture, critical culture, genre culture, all of it vibrating with the speed of instant online reaction.
But aesthetically, historically… geographically! Now more than ever we can muster our individual resources to plunge between worlds, darting through star systems and glimpsing ancient sights. Few things need be obscure to those lit with burning spirit and chased with atomic rockets. The same internet that amplifies our anxieties can lead us to all sorts of works. Past, present – one hundred styles, many tongues. Today you can purchase books from all around the world with a flick of your wrist, like playing with your Wii. A library of pamphlets and bookshelf items are in orbit around the determined. Information is not always reliable, but triangulation is consummately possible. Why, I hear you can even access certain items on your computing machine, if you feel like making Liberty cry and Terrorism clap. All of us can be great space travelers today, if we so choose.
And we do not have to choose. But if we want, it can be done.
That was all a fancy way of saying that I own far too many comics, and that the internet has made it far too easy for me to get more more more. I have no plans of stopping this tragedy from continuing, but I thought I might as well share some thoughts on what I’ve found, and what I’ve found to be interesting. Sometimes I’ll talk about old works, sometimes new(ish) works. Popular works, unpopular works. Whatever I’ve found.
This particular work, for example, can be considered both popular and unpopular, in that it’s apparently ‘sought after,’ even though it’s (to my understanding) only so elusive because nobody bought it in the first place. I found in a bargain bin for one dollar. It is a 1994 Prestige Format one-shot from Vertigo, although it’s actually a collection of a serial that initially ran in the short-lived 2000 AD spin-off magazine Revolver in 1990. It is by Brendan McCarthy and Peter Milligan, apparently produced in a ping-pong manner that demanded the visual credit come first. I commend to you this site for creator commentary and lovely art samples.
Milligan & McCarthy are one of my favorite comics teams – every single one of their collaborations is worth searching out. Weird, pulsing, alive comic books, littered with literary love and goodly fucking garish. Unfortunately, you’ll indeed have to search for them, since none of them happen to be in print and some of them possibly don’t exist in even semi-complete form anymore (unless you stumble upon a cache of the News on Sunday from 1987, let’s say), but that’s the life of a space traveler, eh? I recommend sniffing out the first three issues of Vanguard Illustrated (1983-84) from Pacific, the three-issue Strange Days (1984-85) from Eclipse, and at least issue #1 of the two-issue Paradax (1987) from Vortex. None of it’ll cost you much. Easy to purchase online.
Rogan Gosh, however, was one of their later collaborations. And it’s the perfect comic to illustrate a journey through space, and many types of space at that. The plot is somewhat difficult to summarize, since the book has no interest in providing a single thoroughfare of narrative. Rather, it presents a variety of little stories that occur at essentially the same time, our perspective shifting from one to another, sometimes page-by-page.
The perspectives of the characters shift as well – everybody in Rogan Gosh is constantly imagining or hallucinating or dreaming of themselves as characters or items in everyone else’s story, and most characters are convinced that their reality is the real reality. There’s author Rudyard Kipling, searching for a way out of his guilt-ridden hell of a life in a curious opium den. There’s Raju Dhawan and Dean Cripps, an aloof waiter and boorish patron in an Indian restaurant who find themselves caught up in a dimension-shifting adventure. There’s the Boy, a directionless young comics reader who’s despairing over the departure of his girlfriend and eventually committing suicide while talking to whomever will listen on the telephone. And then there’s Rogan Gosh, a legendary Karmanaut who’s been tricked by the trickster Soma Swami into taking on “my embarrassingly huge backlog of terrible deeds,” including no less than the Curse of Kali.
Fortunately, Rogan Gosh can die and be reborn, plus he can leap through time and reality to affect his other selves in dreaming. Like Raju Dhawan, the waiter. Although he also seems to be the Boy’s imaginary idealization of his lost girlfriend, while the Boy himself is possibly an alternate Dean Cripps, which naturally leads to Raju and Dean having uncontrollable sex in one memorable bit. Certainly the Boy’s actual girlfriend seems to be the same as Dean’s errant fiancée, even through the girlfriend’s current boyfriend has just died, and also might be narrating the comic omnisciently. Except for the fact that the narration often switches from omniscient to first-person, leaping from character to character, and later openly mocks the story itself. Rudyard Kipling, by the way, is also the Soma Swami, occasionally a statue, and sometimes a talking monkey with a mustache. At one point a pair of skulls around Kali’s neck address the comic’s authors directly. The starts and stops of the serial format are worked right into the story as a dimension-hopping stylistic tic. Everyone learns something in the end, although they’re different things, and some of them forget it immediately.
The beauty of this comic, however, is that none of this dizzying narrative play is around simply for bedazzlement. At heart, Rogan Gosh is an exploration, “a parable” as Kipling puts it, of the illusions and confusions of earthly sensations that prevent people from grasping peace and enlightenment. Everybody in this comic is longing for something, but even the inner/outer space explorer of the title cannot always tell where the illusions of living begin. The Boy speaks to us about his uncertainty about whether love exists, not just for him but as a common thing, like it might just be mass hypnosis. His words are painted right on the page, as if his sadness cannot be held back by panels.
Much like, say, Watchmen, Rogan Gosh could not possibly function as effectively as it does as anything other than a comic. This is not because McCarthy and Milligan have mastered the clockwork planning of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons — actually, the loose and stringy Rogan Gosh is practically Watchmen’s tonal and stylistic opposite — but because their storytelling rigorously interrogates the medium’s form, forcing the construct of the comics page itself to act as a metaphor of alternate realities pressed up against one another like panels and pages in a strip, superficial flourishes contextualized as elements of an individual state of being, Kipling’s dreary coloring and distanced narrations emphasizing his intellectual malaise, while the Boy’s world is sickly and slopped with paint. Trawling the pages is like voyaging through the cosmos, and you can stop and jump backward just like the title character. Ha! Didn’t I tell you we’re space travelers now?
But such formal sensitivity also pokes the reader toward paying attention to the work’s total package. I very much like the Prestige Format, and I suspect the work’s interwoven narratives function much better as a single unit, rather than spread out over a series of magazines. But there’s an odd unease to some of the supplemental material – Milligan provides a short Afterword that basically sits the reader down and explains to the them the plot(s), pointing out the various points of view in handy outline format and alluding to some problems that readers of Revolver seemed to have in making sense of the work. On one hand, it’s an affable piece, good-humored and all that. But it’s also a little weary, indicative of a writer who’s probably been told something like ‘wow, you must have done so many drugs‘ a few too many times. It’s really a bit like Milligan pulling his pants down in front of everyone – too much revealed, though it probably gets annoying parties to go away fast.
All concerns of that nature aside, I think it’s a wonderful comic, boundless in intuition and imagination, one that convinces you that ‘comics’ as a medium is capable of anything. Some have been touched by it over the years – certainly one Grant Morrison (whose Doom Patrol is paid homage) seems to have taken away more than a little influence (along with an entire telephone suicide plotline) for his and Frank Quitely’s own elusive Vertigo project, Flex Mentallo, a far tighter-in-focus thing that essentially replaces formal considerations with genre considerations, resulting in a vividly personal statement of superhero purpose.
Hmm. Maybe I’ll pencil that in for another time in a couple months, after I defend the honor of Batman: The Dark Knight Strikes Again and get in a few good pornography posts. But until then, good night or good morning. Or whatever.