Here’s my confession for the day: I’m a metafiction fanboy. One of my favorite examples, and one of my top ten books of all time, is Alasdair Gray’s Lanark: A Life in Four Books. I even have a quote from it tattooed on my sexy, sexy body. I won’t go on about its plot, but suffice it to say Lanark follows the surreal afterlife misadventure of a failed artist. There’s a lot more going on it, from in-depth allegories about Scottish society, framed in hallucinatory representations of heaven and hell, to the idea of fatherhood, and the concept of authorship thereby. But that’s not really important. What is, however, comes in arguably the most pivotal moment in the entirety of Lanark - and the point that shot my brain through the back of my skull. It takes place in the Epilogue, when the titular protagonist finds himself arguing with an all-powerful king in a large, cluttered office. Lanark is given a piece of paper to read and ... well, this happens:
Much of it seemed to be dialogue but Lanark's eye was caught by a sentence in italics which said: Much of it seemed to be dialogue but Lanark's eye was caught by a sentence in italics which said: ...
Lanark gave the paper back asking, "What's that supposed to prove?"
"I am your author."
HE WAS READING HIS OWN STORY, YOU GUYS! (explosion noises) This scene (which you can read at greater length here) is the inspiration for that tattoo I mentioned (“I saw a sentence which said,” loops around my right elbow), so clearly, I go giddy for this kind of shit. The same is true of anyone who loves Vonnegut (who Gray references in the next sentence after the above quote) or more specific to the comics medium, Grant Morrison; both of whose work shares, on some level, the same metafictional DNA codex, which is also often tapped into by a one Mr. Ales Kot.
Like Lanark or Breakfast of Champions or Animal Man, Kot’s The Surface is a story about a story in the process of being told. I know the writer also attributes some or another kind of psychoanalytic shamanistic ... thing, but a literary perspective is what I’m sticking with here. Such a reading is fairly evident in the interplay between characters and fourth wall-breaking dialogue boxes (more evidence to why I think Kot desperately wants to write a Deadpool book). However, the crux of it lies in the mention of Richard Doublehead as an as-yet unseen force, ostensibly rallying the character Nasia as she and her ill-fated friends navigate through the badlands of imagination that make up the so-called Surface, or psychedelic skin of the real world.
As I’ve discussed in my review of Change, wherein he featured as a main character, Doublehead appears to be Kot’s version of Vonnegut’s Kilgore Trout: a sort of fictional stand-in or avatar for the author; his vicar, so to speak. So not only is Kot tipping his hand that The Surface is an increasingly more self-aware work of fiction, but that it is also part of a series, possibly in the same vein as Samuel Beckett’s Trilogy, wherein characters from one book are written by characters in the next, and so on. Or perhaps it’s more like Flann O’Brien’s At Swim Two Birds, where the characters from multiple stories collude to break free of their fictional bonds by overwhelming the author. But at this point, that’s just conjecture and projecting on my part.
So, the premis in The Surface #2 is, for a reader like me, fucking great! But it has to be shored up in strong storytelling to make an impact. That’s where I think Kot’s direction flounders. It feels more outwardly affected, but not as well-told as the other works I mentioned. Now, some affectation is to be expected in a device as inherently hubristic as metafictional intrusion, but unlike those other stories, in which divine tyranny is depicted as largely self-deprecating, Kot’s purpose in The Surface is more grating. Don’t get me wrong: I maintain that the required vivisection of deeper text (which The Surface admittedly demands) is as much a part of metafiction as its writing, but this sacrifices story for the pursuit of “higher” narrative.
In essence, I like what Kot is doing in The Surface, but I’m not in love with how he’s doing it. There is no fluidity here; no flow. The polyamorous-for-the-sake-of-being-polyamorous trio is lost in a jungle of creativity, they fuck, some talking monkeys show up and then a SWAT team arrives because one of the three has daddy issues. Meanwhile, the story is pushing for its actors to escape it. That’s disjointed enough, but its telling feels more like a series of snapshots than a narrative, which makes Kot less a storyteller and more a maker-of-points. Similarly, not one of these characters is distinct or endearing, regardless of the familial backstory Kot tries to present this issue. This makes the entire thing feel so-far soulless and altogether empty; its story ironically forsaken for the point it’s trying to make about creating stories.
Thankfully, the materials present in the first issue - those pretentious interviews with Kot, himself - are kept to a dull roar and relegated to (still-laborious) snippets before and after the book’s meat. If you look at the link to the scene in Lanark, you’ll see that Gray pulls a similar trick, bedeviling his readers on all sides by an avalanche of liner notes, ostensibly discussing the many plagiarisms throughout the book, both real and invented.
What this frame of text really does, of course, is remind readers that we are interacting with a written narrative, and are snowed under meta-metafiction. In a way, Kot is attempting to do something similar in The Surface with his extra materials; but again, they feel unwieldy and written with a more tragically-hip sense of self-importance, making it a much less engaging experience. What is not in question, however, is the ambition Kot is bringing to the medium, begun by his forebears in creators like the aforementioned Morrison. But like the latter, Kot could do with his own editorial oversight to better temper the structure of his creator-owned stories.
Langdon Foss’ art - particularly combined with the ever-impressive and omnipresent Jordie Bellaire’s colors - is a fucking spectacle, for a whole different reason. On a purely aesthetic level alone, The Surface #2 is a fantastic ride. For his part, Foss does an incredible job illustrating Kot’s conceptual conceit in a torrent of alternatively phallic and vaginal imagery, which are sometimes brought together as one. The book’s monolithic projector, for instance (in my reading at least) looks like the closeup of a fountain pen’s nib (and all the shared anatomy that such a hole-ventilated shaft implies), cut in a scene that talks about one of the book’s characters being “locked in a liquid chamber” -- an ink cartridge, perhaps? Who knows, but there are so many different representations of birth here, it’ll make your head spin and if nothing lse sends the mind abuzz with possibilities. So when it works, it works well.
Foss also does some interesting things to represent another of The Surface’s themes, which interestingly, is the very thing I suggest for Kot’s writing; that is, the inclusion of structure. As the foot soldiers sent by Mark’s father invade The Surface, they leave in their wake a regimented, clinical organization and with it, a loss of the place’s loose-knit creative innocence. It’s a fantastic scene with endless war machines, descending well-armed goons and hails of square-shelled bullets, with the organic and the constructed vying for dominance on the page like some world at war with its own bell jar.
Bellaire does a great job of applying a phosphorescent facade to Foss’ expressive cartography, both in its fantastic atmosphere and in his figure work. Together, they achieve some true wonders in this book. I’m certain Kot had a directorial role in there as well, so as many writing gaffes as I think he may be making, he does manage some genuine ingenuity here, too.
Overall, I still don’t hate The Surface, and I think its second issue is a much better, more intriguing and well-constructed read than its mis-paced number one. But particularly Kot has a lot of ground to cover if he wants to make it more appealing as a strong work of metafiction on anything but a visual level alone.