Vaughan & Chiang's "Paper Girls" Builds a Familiar Yet Disconcerting World
Let’s update another old post in this series. This is the first one I wrote for PopCultureShock, which means it’s been gone from the Internet for quite some time. Yes, I’m starting to update the dead links in the archives. Huzzah! (Plus, there are SPOILERS below. Oh, and nudity. You’ve been warned!)
DC/Wildstorm, 9 issues (#1-9), cover dated September 2002 – July 2003.
Automatic Kafka never stood a chance. It was unlike almost anything that had come along before, and I’m amazed it lasted nine issues. On first glance, it looks too weird to read – Wood’s art is probably an acquired taste for most people, and there’s a lot of cursing, sex, violence, and gratuitous nudity in this book. Many people may have picked up the first issue, read it, said WTF?, and dropped it. I almost did after a few issues, but I stuck with it, and I’m glad I did. This is a complex book that rewards multiple readings. It grows on you, and like most great modern comics, reads better in one sitting than spaced out over months.
On the surface, AK is pretty straightforward. It’s a superhero comic about a washed-up superhero, Mr. Automatic Kafka himself. He’s an android and one of the strongest sentient beings on the planet, but he’s lonely. He tries drugs, he tries sex, he finally tries fame and gets hooked. Through the course of the run we meet his ex-teammates from the group The $tranger$ (with the dollar signs – Casey can be subtle, but not here) and how they’re faring, and there’s an interesting super-villain and a “traitor” to the cause, but that’s all window dressing. If you want to read this as a coarse superhero title, go ahead. It won’t disappoint, even though there’s not a lot of fights and explosions. There’s enough action to keep you interested. That’s not what Casey and Wood are about, however.
You can also read it as a parody of superhero comics, but I think Casey and Wood love superheroes too much to do that. Sure, they’re parodying aspects of the genre, but you can see their respect for the institutions as well, so the parody is gentle, despite the sex and violence. What this comic really is is the ultimate deconstruction and homage to the superhero, and, I would argue, the truest postmodern superhero comic out there (okay, I haven’t read them all, but I would be surprised if there were a better one). Yes, Moore deconstructed the superhero 25 years ago, and Morrison did 15 years ago [Edit: we can adjust these dates a few years now, of course], and others have done it too, but Casey and Wood take it further than those guys did, giving us a superhero who is actively deconstructing himself, as well as characters who are all, one some level, aware that they are fictional constructs. It’s fascinating to see how Casey and Wood navigate these tricky waters without becoming too pretentious, a trap they usually avoid.
Casey and Wood dive right into things in the first issue, in which a depressed Kafka tries a new drug that is supposed to work on androids, since nothing else does. When he injects it, we immediately get one of the themes of the book – Kafka’s yearning to be human (yes, he’s just like Pinocchio!). He wants to have real sex with a woman, and he wants to enjoy sports, and he wants to laugh at sitcoms. Morrison did this with Cliff in Doom Patrol, so it’s not necessarily new, but it is still interesting to see the journey Kafka goes on to resolve his issues. And then Death shows up, totally naked. Of course, she’s a hot babe. It turns out Kafka’s pusher was a member of the Chemical Mob, an old group of villains from Kafka’s hero days, and he gave him some messed-up drugs. This allows Kafka and Death to take a trip through Kafka’s subconscious, introducing us to the series. It’s a nice device. It also allows the creators to begin inserting themselves into the book (something they do in issue #9) and making postmodern comments. Death mentions that Kafka’s life in the 1980s was “like something out of a Michelinie comic.” Everyone talks like this – it’s artificial, but suits the book perfectly. They also stop in and check out Wood’s drawing table, on which is the actual page we’re reading. The first issue ends with a text piece by the creators (Casey, most likely), which alternately tells us that AK is the most subversive and brilliant piece of writing ever and also that it’s crap. This has become Casey’s thing in recent years, and it’s not as annoying as it might sound. He wants us to interact with the comic itself, get involved, look for clues that may or may not be there, but most of all, think about it. Use our brains. Kafka is us, ultimately, looking for meaning and finding only corny speeches, stale supervillains, sex selling product, and fickle creators and a reading public that determines our fate.
Each issue addresses an aspect of what Casey is trying to do with the book. He brings in the National Park Service, which is a government agency in the Wildstorm Universe, but I’m not sure if Casey himself invented it (he digs it, though). The NPS wants Kafka to work for them, since the government built him in the first place. Instead, he becomes a celebrity to “hide in plain sight.” This allows Casey to get to the meat of the book, which is a critique of mass consumerism and America’s obsession with patriotism and sex. If you don’t think those two go together, Casey makes it clear that they do. Kafka becomes a corporate shill and a game show host (of “The Million Dollar Detail,” which sounds ridiculous until you remember that shows like “Fear Factor” are actually on the air [Well, they were in 2005]), and this brings him back into the public eye and makes him an advertising dream. Casey also brings in his old teammates The Constitution of the United States and Helen of Troy. The Constitution (and his scantily-clad and oversexed sidekick, The Declaration of Independence) is again not the model of subtlety, as he is now a government soldier working covert ops in dirty, out-of-the-way places (like the Comedian in Watchmen, I suppose), but again, it allows Casey to point out the stereotypes of superhero comics while still indulging in them. When, in issue #5, The Constitution sees his sidekick blown apart by “the bad guys,” he says, “This is what it’s all about. The slow march to the final showdown, the inevitable violence that ensues … gratuitous fight scenes …” This is what the public wants, and this is what The Constitution has been programmed to love. He does enjoy it, but recognizes its cost. We recognize that we have been programmed to enjoy this, and although we also recognize the kookiness, we can’t get past it. We’re part of the problem as much as The Constitution is. After destroying the bad guys, The Constitution returns stateside, where he enters the porn industry. Again, it’s not terribly subtle, but it does make a point that others have made, most notably Eric Schlosser in Reefer Madness – there’s almost nothing as all-American as porn, even though people don’t want to admit it. The Constitution links the two when he says, “Vixen Video. The gold standard of the porn industry. Very American. My kind of place.” On his belly is a tattoo that says “Old Glory” and an arrow pointing down. He’s a true American hero, in every sense of the word. By the last issue, he’s trying to set a record for quantity of girls serviced on tape. It’s all very beautiful.
Kafka doesn’t get the short shrift, either, as Casey continues to make his point about celebrity culture alongside his point about American consumers. He hooks up with his old teammate Helen of Troy, and they have wild and crazy sex (in issue #6) which reveals to Kafka that Helen is actually an old woman using sex-magic to keep herself looking young. If that’s not a comment on America’s obsession with youth, I don’t know what is. Casey also brings in his own ideas, one he’s talked about in columns for CBR – Fuck Fame. That’s when someone is so famous you simply want to have sex with them, whether or not they’re particularly attractive. These superheroes have it. The agent from the NPS who first interviews Kafka (in issue #3) crawls, panting, over the desk toward him because she used to have a huge crush on him. The receptionist at Vixen Video fellates The Constitution (in issue #7) because she used to have posters of him on the wall. These are superheroes who are celebrities, after all, and Casey knows that they would use that celebrity to get what they want, even after their time has passed.
It all comes apart in the end, of course. A former supervillain, Galaxia, who replaced his head with a small galaxy, comes to The Warning’s house for help. The Warning, who put the team together back in the 1980s and is the smartest guy around, brokers a reconciliation between Galaxia and Kafka and then recycles Galaxia as an energy source, since he’s working on things for the government and could use the energy of a galaxy. The reconciliation scene between Galaxia and Kafka is nicely done, showing again that superheroes, when they’re done like the Big Two do them, become mere stereotypes and ultimately dull. Galaxia is dying, and that gives him perspective on what he was doing fifteen years earlier. Unlike, say, Doctor Doom, Galaxia regrets the things he did in the name of science, and understands that he didn’t always make the correct choice. Kafka, for his part, is able to grant a dying man his request for a truce. Then, of course, The Warning imprisons Galaxia to use for energy, and all our good feelings are washed away. When Kafka finds out, he confronts The Warning, but is ineffectual against him. The Warning sums up Kafka’s problem: “You’re searching for that thing you thought you were missing out on as an artificial construct … You’d watch humanity teeming around and you’d feel empty inside. … Humanity is confusion. Welcome to it.” This sends Kafka on his last adventure, as a butterfly appears and tells him, “I’ve been sent here to rescue you from the possible tedium of another so-called ‘story arc’ in the relentless continuum you call ‘life.’ ” This leads to issue #9, in which Casey and Wood appear.
Casey and Wood admit what they’re doing in issue #9 isn’t original. They name-check Julius Schwartz and Curt Swan and Wolfman/Perez and Morrison and admit they’re ripping them off. That’s not the point. As they tell us, the point is that Kafka is their creation, and they labored over him, and they don’t want to share him. It’s an admirable sentiment. Kafka still doesn’t quite get the fact that he’s a comic book creation rather than an actual superhero, but that’s okay, because it’s all artificial anyway. Casey makes the point that AK was an experiment, and experiments don’t always go the way the creators want them to. He and Wood occasionally play the victim – Wood says at one point that there’s lines you can’t cross, perhaps ignoring that maybe the book’s not that good (I’m not making that argument, as you can see, but for someone to blame the audience for not buying something because it’s too “edgy” is a little silly) – but basically they are trying to point out that, unfortunately, the comic book industry has become a bit too homogenized, especially the Big Two (Wildstorm is owned by DC, after all). Casey tells Kafka he’s not commercial enough, and Kafka sputters, ” ‘Not commercial …’? But … we’re superheroes …!” Well, sure you are, Kafka, but not the kind that people like. At the end of the book, Wood “decreates” Kafka, so that he doesn’t become a commodity. Kafka says it feels better than the drugs ever did, and Casey tells him “That’s because this oblivion is for real. And the real thing is always better.” It’s a nice ending to the series and the experiment.
I’m not sure why Automatic Kafka failed, despite the way I started this post (that was more for dramatics!). I don’t know enough about the industry to guess about the promotional stuff DC did for it. I do know that it is possible for a book like AK to succeed. Maybe it was too outre for the mainstream superhero crowd, but too corporate for the indy crowd. I don’t know. I do know that if you like simple morality tales from your superheroes, this book is not for you. It challenges you to think about heroes differently, but also about the country and what it stands for, our relationship to our self-created celebrities, and our own purchasing power in an increasingly consumer-and-manufacturer-dominated world. Casey asks you to think about yourself, and perhaps we won’t like the answers.
In yet another great tragedy of our modern age, Automatic Kafka has not been collected in a handsome, giant-sized omnibus edition with commentary by the creators. Damn you, DC and Wildstorm! Get on it! I have no idea if the issues are difficult to find, but they’re definitely worth the hunt!
[It has been pointed out that I pretty much ignore issue #4, the rather infamous one that focuses on the “Peanuts” gang, all grown up. It’s a brilliant issue, actually, and contains some of the themes that Casey delves into during the rest of the run, but it’s also largely self-contained, so I kind of passed it by. I do apologize. If I wrote this today, I’d probably write more about it. But I should point out that it’s a damned good story.]
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