Saturday, July 10, 2010

Monkey vs. Robot

Writer: James Kochalka
Artist: James Kochalka
Published: Top Shelf Productions, 2000; $14.95

I’m not actually sure how or where I first heard of James Kochalka. It may have been from a short guest-penciling job he did in Ultimate Marvel Team-Up, which was one of my favorite comic books about ten years ago. It may also have been from his four-page cartoon “Hulk vs. the Rain,” which appeared in an Incredible Hulk Annual around the same time. Either way, I’m fairly confident that my first exposure to his work was in some sort of superheroic venue, which is ironic considering Kochalka is one of the most well-regarded voices in the medium for reasons completely unrelated to mainstream comics. At the time, I had little idea that there were comics worth reading outside the worlds of Marvel and DC, so his unique style caught me off guard – in the best of ways.

I’m not sure Kochalka was the specific “gateway drug,” so to speak, that led me to first explore comics written and published outside the mainstream, but reading his work was certainly a stepping stone in that direction for me. So it was with a bit of a guilty conscience a few days ago that I realized I couldn’t remember the last time I had read one of his books. It was only fitting that I go back to the beginning, I thought, and read one of his early graphic novels, Monkey vs. Robot.

The book is exactly what the title suggests: monkeys fighting robots. But it’s also much more than that. There are several different subtexts at play here, the most potent one being a condemnation of technology’s effect on the natural world. You see, the robots have set up a factory smack in the middle of the jungle, and the toxic sludge it produces is killing the monkeys. You can imagine why they might be a little upset.

The environmental theme pervades every aspect of the book, especially the monochromatic art (I hesitate to call it black and white, because the brushstrokes look more to me like a deep, dark jungle green). Of course, that’s out of necessity for the most part, since there are very few words in Monkey vs. Robot, aside from the occasional sound effect. The robots have a few lines (“Attack,” “Begin extermination,” etc.), but they really only serve to deepen their total lack of emotion. Their faces are fraught with metallic indifference, even in death – that is, if it’s possible for a nonliving thing to actually “die” – while the monkeys exude fear, anger, and hope without so much as a word.

The story works on another level too, one that I completely missed on my first read-through. Toward the end, one of the monkeys escapes into the robots’ factory and comes face to face with “the Mother,” a terrifyingly inhuman master computer of sorts that rants almost incoherently about “crystalline perfection” and “metal futurity.” The monkey stands transfixed for several pages, and the spell is only broken when he is discovered and mercilessly attacked by one of the robots.

For one brief moment, though, both the monkey and the reader are seduced by the apparent beauty of the Mother’s words. Then, in an instant of utter horror, Kochalka demonstrates the ease with which seemingly benign words like “progress” and “future” can also be synonyms for “death” and “extinction” – with the Mother’s message rejected by reader and monkey alike, the factory and the jungle both erupt into flame.

Even if Monkey vs. Robot lacks strong individual characters in the vein of some of Kochalka’s later work, the emotions it invokes are just as powerful. Reading this book, I felt despair as the final battle turned hopelessly against the monkeys, fear at the sight of fire burning uncontrollably against the night sky, and finally, joy at the cleansing, hopeful rain that brings the story to an end. In a word, this book made me feel, and if there is any higher praise I can give it than that, my only regret is that I can’t find the words to express it. On the other hand, though, as Kochalka so beautifully reveals in this book, perhaps words aren’t the answer to all our problems.

Rating: 5 out of 5

8 comments:

  1. Huh, great review Marc. Needless to say, I've never heard of this GN before reading your words on it, since I've RARELY ever ventured outside of the Big Two. With your HIGH praise of this work though, I'm tempted to overlook my notorious monkey bias and see if I can pick this up somewhere. So long as the monkeys don't talk, I shouldn't have a problem reading this!

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  2. Marc, this is a great review of a GN that sounds quite unique. I hope you do more reviews of indie books in the future.

    Have you ever read Craig Thompson's "Blankets"? That's like the only indie book I've sought out, read, and cared to remember.

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  3. Great review Marc, I always enjoy symbolism. This sounds like an interesting story and although off the charts in terms of my usual reading, I wouldn't mind reading this.

    Speaking of Indy stuff I feel I should recommend Empowered to you, you may like it, I recommend it to X as well and I wouldn't be surprised if you enjoyed it.

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  4. Wow, fantastic review Marc. I'm with X when it comes to reading stuff outside of DC and Marvel. But this does sound very interesting. Especially the whole technology taking over nature. It's just something people try not to talk about much and I'm sure James Kochalka does a fantastic job of expressing it through his graphic novel.

    Lol, I swear you, JT, and X have me just so curious on buying things. It's a good thing though, widens the genres of stuff I read. :)

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  5. Thanks for all the kind words! I wasn't sure how this review would go over, since I'd gotten into such a superhero review habit over the last few weeks.

    Kello - Blankets is absolutely wonderful. Beautiful art, beautiful story. I actually have another of Thompson's books, Good-Bye Chunky Rice, waiting to be read right now. I've heard only good things.

    JT - I've never read Empowered, though I am somewhat familiar with its writer/artist, Adam Warren. He's done some interesting stuff both inside and outside the superhero genre. He actually did an Iron Man miniseries a few years ago, which apparently incorporated some hard science fiction concepts in a way that had never been done with the character before.

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  6. I wasn't aware of that actually. I knew he did some work on Teen Titans, more art than writing if I remember correctly but I didn't know he worked on Iron Man. Would you recommend the Iron Man mini?

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  7. I haven't read it, just heard about it. It was called Iron Man: Hypervelocity if you're interested.

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  8. Awesome, I'll look up some reviews for it. Thanks dude.

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