So, I just finished recording Episode 175 of the Comic Bastards CBMFP, and I think I may have come off as a little harsh on Ales Kot and Langdon Foss’ new Image book, The Surface. Okay, maybe a lotta harsh. I still maintain that its first issue is overly-expository, self-serving and burdened by gravitas; but as hackneyed as it often comes across in practice, I actually enjoy the premise behind its “TransMatrixpolitan” approach to story. Unfortunately, I also can’t help but see The Surface #1 as a heavy-handed, self-indulgent pat on the back, such that Story comes second to Glory. The Surface #1 presents a world not unlike our own, inundated as it is by an unending torrent of various virtual newsfeeds; but here, it is taken to its most hyper extreme, where being “plugged-in” is the default, and over-sharing via Twitch-like personal feeds is all but a natural reflex. Through atmospheres thick with inescapable “progress,” we follow three haxorz named Gomez, Mark and Nasia (who are in a polyamorous relationship, because “Reasons”), as they attempt to rage against the world’s simulacra and find the legendary “Surface” - a plane from which the hallucinogenic hologram that we would call Reality emanates. Standing in our heroes’ way is a jaded government and a contented populace, as well as the trio’s own tenuous grasp of perception.
That plot structure, place and premise, in and of themselves, aren’t bad at all. Like I said, we’ve seen similar themes in The Matrix movies, and its atmosphere harkens back to books like Transmetropolitan (which Kot admittedly references here in a throwaway nod), and I enjoy a solid existential crisis as much as the next reader. The problem with The Surface is that it suffers from the very thing it seeks to denounce: relentless pretense. Is that the point? Maybe. But it also makes for a grating reading experience.
Like the world it presents, every page of this issue is cluttered and busy from the very beginning. On its sixth page of story, for example, we get a scene wherein three separate expositions are simultaneously vying for attention. Done more deftly, this treatment might work, but here it becomes a burden to the reader, forcing him or her to parse a scene that could have been better unpacked by the creative team. I understand that Kot is trying to mimic the muddled effect of living beneath a heady stream of information, but his whole point (from my reading, anyway) is to show how annoying that can be. But before you even reach the middle of the book, its feast or famine pace (relying mostly on boldface recitation of philosophy rather than the seamless incorporation thereof) makes you feel exhausted. And not in the post-coital way you want.
Then there’s Kot’s by-now standard proselytizing, which shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone familiar with his work, and is honestly half the fun of his writing style. To his credit, Kot often does highlight interesting philosophies, writers and theorists, but when the dialogue and exposition are just regurgitated interviews with the author, repurposed and finagled into the text, it becomes wearing. This is especially true in the text-heavy inserts, which take on that interview style and immediately break up any remainder of “flow” to the story proper.
The writing within these sections - geared specifically as meta-narrative, even at various points shilling Kot’s old books - also makes him seem absolutely in-love with the sound of his own thoughts, in a subtextual thread that comes across, in equal measure, as wanton pride and soul-crushing insecurity, but in either case makes for an off-putting experience.
Meanwhile, the art from Langdon Foss - which reminds me of a slightly “cleaner” Nick Pitarra - is serviceable, but only because the moments of grandeur he is capable of come so few and far between this issue. Being a story intro, some of that is understandable; but unlike the text, which seems to aggressively challenge its readers, the art is being told to hold back. Langdon’s figure work is fun and expressive (though slightly repetitive at points), but his is an art style that requires unleashing with reckless abandon, in my opinion.
His Dar es Salaam cityscape of monstrously grotesque urban phalluses, for example, is appropriately grand and suitably impacting, but you can tell he’s chomping at the bit to reach the end of the story, where we finally get a taste of his creativity; albeit too little, too late. Still, the visual side of this story is where I have the most faith in it to progress to a place of interest for me, and is the main reason I’ll be sticking around.
Don’t get me wrong, I still have a lot of time for Ales Kot as a creator. He’s obviously very well-read of Postmodernist authors, has a keen interest in captivating theories like the Bohm diffusion and enjoys getting funky with existential philosophies like Holographic Universe Theory, and I think it’s great that he folds these elements into his stories.
The problem is, he really, really wants you to know how clever he is, in a condition of authorial intrusion similar to the one Morrison once indulged in, but has since, thankfully, gotten over. I worry that The Surface will, and has already become, yet another of his treatises that can be summed up with: “Drugs are great. Reality is not what it seems. And you should read William S. Burroughs.” I’m not saying I disagree with any of that, but I’d just like its inclusion within his stories to be a bit more even-handed.
I’ll stick around The Surface for a couple more issues to see if its depth is anything more than the facade its name implies, but I do so warily and with no small amount of anxiety that his so-called “Psychomagic” is all just smoke and mirrors.
Listen to our comic book podcast to hear more on The Surface #1!