The fact that this comic exists in this form at all is remarkable. “King City” was originally published by Tokyopop when they were still actively pushing their Global Manga initiative. Only one volume of this series came out before the company’s fortunes started to turn and eventually lead to the demise of their publishing operations last year. Long before that, it was revealed that the contracts that creators like Brandon Graham signed as part of their publishing deal gave pretty much all of their rights to these titles to Tokyopop. On one hand, it’s shameful that the company felt the need to resort to the kind of publishing deals that screwed over a lot of the original creators for Marvel and DC, but these guys and girls should’ve read the fine print a bit closer before agreeing to them in the first place. Somewhere, Alan Moore is rolling his eyes and going, “Did you learn nothing from me?!” Though we may never learn more about how this title was “license rescued” from Tokyopop by Image’s Eric Stephenson beyond the fact that he “hammered out deals for a couple months” I’m glad we’re getting to read the whole story now.
As for whether or not this title was worth the effort, the answer is a qualified “yes.”
“King City” revolves around Joe, who has returned to the title place after a long time away. Since his absence from the city, he has trained as a catmaster -- an individual who can manipulate a cat into doing just about anything with the right injection -- and now makes a living doing odd jobs of varying legality. His buddy Pete is also in a questionable line of work as the man’s current job has him transporting an aqua-girl to people who clearly don’t have her best interest at heart. Then you’ve got Joe’s ex-girlfriend Anna who has hooked up with Max, a veteran of the Korean zombie wars and is now addicted to the body-altering drug known as chalk.
Any narrative this title can be accused of having comes down to how the paths of these three individuals cross and intertwine over its 400+ page length. Though each provides a potential concept for the story to coalesce around, “King City” stubbornly refuses to embrace any kind of storytelling cohesion or momentum. Things just happen to the characters and they react to them with the events playing out almost in isolation from each other. What fragments of narrative the story has also come off as exceedingly familiar in the way that you’ve seen pretty much all of them done before and better.
Strangely enough, that familiarity could be argued as an asset to the title as they provide a showcase for Graham’s utterly bizarre and unique imagination. While the whole “cat as all-purpose tool” probably could’ve sustained an entire book, it just turns out to be the most well-developed idea in a book that tosses them at you like Skittles. From the sasquatch landlord, to Pete’s water apartment lock, girls who can suck ice cubes through straws, a cthonic entity split into three hosts, a four-eyed assassin who can for-see your next move, owl gangs... I COULD KEEP THIS LIST GOING ALL NIGHT! Hell, I’m sure Warren Ellis read the part where Joe infiltrates a club via its secret gloryhole entrance and went, “How the hell did I not think of that first?” My point is that even if the narrative fails to engage and bring all this stuff together, the pages are chock full of cool and imaginative ideas to hold your interest. It’s a very rare book that can subsist on style alone, but “King City” pulls it off and does it for far longer than I would’ve normally thought possible.
Graham is also a talented enough artist that he can pull all this off with style. His base style is very loose and cartoony, which suits the manic insanity of the book from top to bottom. He is, however, more than capable of pouring on the detail in crowd scenes, where bits of text reveal fascinating insights into the nameless faces of the story, and in epic shots of the city itself. The man also has a great eye for action as the many fight scenes of the story will demonstrate.
It’s not perfect, and by no means a book for everyone, but “King City” is still a great advertisement for one man’s talent. This would be Graham’s “Reservoir Dogs” if you’re looking for a filmic analogy. Though he certainly has style, it remains to be seen if he storytelling chops to match. Maybe we’ll get an answer to that in “Prophet,” his new take on the old Rob Liefeld character that has been garnering no end of good reviews since its launch earlier this year. As for the title itself, I’d also like to extend my thanks to Eric Stephensen because all that work he did to get it out of limbo with Tokyopop was worth it in the end.
Now if he could please do the same for Becky Cloonan’s “East Coast Rising” because I’d sure like to know how that ends.