If it’s even remembered at all anymore, Wild Palms is mostly known as the basis for an ABC network miniseries that attempted to combine the surrealism of Twin Peaks with the cyberpunk subculture, with decidedly mixed results. Wild Palms was written by Bruce Wagner (who also scripted the TV series and is credited along with Oliver Stone as an executive producer) and was drawn by the late Julian Allen (1942-1998), whose illustrations appeared in magazines like Rolling Stone, Newsweek, Esquire, and many others. Wild Palms was originally serialized in Details magazine from 1990 to 1993 in two-page installments. Early commercials for Details that ran constantly on MTV and other places mentioned Wild Palms by name along with showing a page of the story, making it one of the few comics to be advertised on television. Arrow Books released a collected edition in 1993 around the time of the miniseries, however that collection has been out of print for almost twenty years now.
So what exactly is Wild Palms? It’s best to begin with a brief description of Julian Allen’s striking art, which is a combination of artists like Rod Kierkegaard Jr. and Drew Friedman – especially their work in Heavy Metal – along with the California paintings of David Hockney. Allen’s art for the series is at times almost photo-realistic, and it occasionally even makes use of redrawn still images from films and television. This realism with regard to the art is very important since so much of the story involves famous people as both background and as actual characters (though very much fictionalized versions of themselves). Allen also relies on close-ups to tell the story, which gives the comic a distinct feeling of claustrophobia. This, in the end, serves to heighten the sense of paranoia.
To date, Wild Palms is Bruce Wagner’s only foray into comics. Over the years, he has written several novels including Force Majeure (which he references in Wild Palms in the form of stream-of-consciousness dialogue) and Dead Stars (which he adapted into a screenplay for the upcoming film Maps to the Stars, directed by David Cronenberg). “Maps to the stars” is also a repeating phase that runs throughout the Wild Palms story. Wagner also has a story credit for Nightmare on Elm Street 3: The Dream Warriors, possibly the most comic influenced installment of that series. The actual story of Wild Palms is best described as an Alan J. Pakula fever dream dictated to J.G. Ballard then turned into a lost 1970s Fleetwood Mac album rediscovered and covered by Psychic TV. If this description is very reference-heavy then welcome to Wild Palms: a transitional work that exists somewhere between the neon plastic ‘80s and the reference-everything, ironic ‘90s.
[EDITOR'S NOTE: Below this point, the article's author explains most of the story's plot, so if you have Wild Palms on your "to read" list, you'll want to read it before you read this article. Spoilers ahead!]
Wild Palms is the story of Harry Wyckoff, an attorney living a slightly drugged and detached existence with his family in Los Angeles, who along the way discovers that his family is not really his family, his job is not his job, and his boss is a senator, media mogul, and cult leader.
The first story arc, which covers the first year of publication, establishes Harry and gives some insight into his existence with the first two pages devoted entirely to exposition about Harry’s fashion designer wife Beth, his son Coty and daughter Deirdre, his friend Tommy who later disappears then reappears as a different person, the pills that he takes for headaches or boredom, and his old girlfriend Paige Katz whose return to his life sets the story in motion. About halfway through the first arc, after Harry witnesses his mother-in-law gouge out the eyes of a famous artist named Tullie Woiwode at a benefit dinner sponsored by the Wild Palms Agency, Harry is drugged by his mother-in-law, wife, and ex-girlfriend with a powerful hallucinogen that causes visions of, among other things, a rhinoceros.
After this experience, Harry quits his law firm job and goes to work for the Wild Palms Agency. Soon after, Harry is relaxing by his pool and meets his old friend Tommy who he barely recognizes because of Tommy’s extensive plastic surgery. Tommy shows Harry a door at the bottom of his pool that opens to a series of secret tunnels. It is here that Harry is introduced to a group called the Friendship Committee, led by Woiwode, who are trying to bring down the Wild Palms Agency. Later, Harry experiences another hallucinogenic seizure after meeting the “Maps to the Stars boy,” a young boy whose chest is covered in star tattoos who sells maps to celebrities’ homes. The year ends with Harry arrested for the murder of his wife.
The second year opens with the reveal that Harry’s arrest was a pretext to have him abducted and imprisoned in the basement of the Wild Palms Agency where he is drugged, interrogated, and initiated once again by his wife, her mother, Harry’s old girlfriend Paige Katz, and a man soon revealed to be Anton “Tony” Kreutzer, who is the head of the Wild Palms Agency, a senator, and the founder of a Scientology-type religion called Synthiotics. The Senator welcomes Harry into into the Wild Palms Agency and immediately sends him to Rome, along with Carrie Fisher and Arnold Klein, the dermatologist who pioneered the use of Botox. While in Rome, Harry is again drugged with a powerful hallucinogen called Amazine and raped by the senator’s lover, a writer named Hurdsey Tosh. Paige Katz, who is also in Rome, visits Harry the next day and tells him he experienced a kind of religious awakening.
Harry returns to Los Angeles to produce a film by the Wild Palms Agency called Maps to the Stars. Harry also believes that his wife has been replaced by an overweight replica. Later, Senator Kreutzer meets with Harry and formally introduces him to the Maps to the Stars boy whose real name is Peter and who is Harry’s actual son. Harry and Peter go out to the ocean where they meet the late producer Don Simpson who introduces them to his adopted son Chickie Stein. Chickie has cystic fibrosis and has developed a new type of virtual reality immersion system that Don Simpson wants to use to bridge the gap between “human wetware and high end telepresence” in a project he calls “Church Windows.” The story arc ends with Harry going into his house and seeing not only his family but also Chickie, Paige Katz, and the senator. They have all gathered to say goodbye to Harry who is no longer necessary for their plans. Harry packs a suitcase and disappears down the tunnel in his swimming pool.
The third and final arc opens with Harry completely broken and living in a Synthiotics group home. He spends this time talking with other residents and reading Senator Kreutzer’s books on the Synthiotics belief system, including “some of his early science fiction stories.” Harry ends up leaving the Synthiotics group home and moving in with his new girlfriend, a woman he met there. His day-to-day existence is of celebrity encounters, most notably Jim Belushi and Dana Delany who were starring in the Wild Palms television miniseries that was about to come out, reading true crime novels and fiction, and reminiscing about his connections to movies. One night, he dreams that he is Burt Lancaster’s character in the movie The Swimmer and awakens with the realization that he is going to assassinate Senator Kreutzer.
Before carrying out his plan, Harry tries to visit his son, Coty, or rather the boy he believed was his son, who is living in his own mansion with his own plans to possibly take over the Wild Palms Agency. Unable to confront Coty, Harry then goes to visit Paige Katz who is dying from AIDS. Paige tells Harry that his wife Beth was strangled by her mother and that his daughter Deirdre is to marry Coty to become royalty within the Synthiotics church and Wild Palms.
Harry meets up with his real son, Peter, who gives him a gun and together they go to Kreutzer’s house to rescue Deirdre. When Harry confronts him, Kreutzer is injecting himself with a refined version of the Amazine drug he was dosed with in Rome called Mimezine. Harry discards the gun and instead beats Kreutzer to death with his bare hands and then injects himself with an overdose of Mimezine. Harry dies with visions of his wife and of his son Peter taking Deirdre to safety.
Wild Palms is a narrative saturated in paranoia and popular culture, and the way that Wagner and Allen blend the two together echoes Elisabeth De Bordes who says ”[e]very facet of our modern experience breeds a sense of paranoia, be it in economical, sociological, political or psychological terms.”(44) The paranoia, however, is unique in its vagueness and also that it exists almost entirely within the mind of the reader, rather than the main character Harry Wyckoff. While conspiracy and fear permeate the story on practically every page, whether in the form of powerful entertainment corporations, secret religious groups, or shifting identities, it’s impossible to really grasp beyond its mere existence. No purpose is ever given to this conspiracy, and it is left entirely up to the reader, who really knows only as much as Harry.
Harry, however, is a passive character who, throughout most of the story lets things happen to him rather than initiate any action himself. He accepts everything he sees and everything that happens to him without question, and he leads an anonymous existence, even in his home. Harry’s life is what Deleuze calls “the black night of the undifferentiated.”(78) He more or less sleepwalks through this incredibly turbulent plastic simulacrum of middle class life full of anxiety over everything from his social status, his preteen son becoming more successful than him with his turn as a movie star and with being groomed to take a top spot in Synthiotics, and a general fear of HIV / AIDS. Ultimately, Harry comes to a decision that he has to kill the senator, but with everything that has happened before (the abductions, the drugs, and the Synthiotics compound), it’s unclear if this is actually what Harry wants, a choice made of his own free will, or if it’s just the end result of conditioning from his drugged programming. At the climax of the story, Kreutzer is not at all surprised to see Harry standing in his house. In fact, Kreutzer — in a drug-fueled monologue composed of scattered bits of song lyrics from Lou Reed, Dreamgirls, Helen Reddy, and others — says “come to me Harry… My Son! My son. My son-.”
Although no ultimate plan behind the conspiracy is ever revealed in the comic, Wagner’s teleplay for the miniseries constructs an elaborate conspiracy that is equal parts Philip K. Dick and early Cronenberg. In the show, Senator Kreutzer, portrayed in a very over-the-top manner by Robert Loggia, is a man of immense wealth from his tech company Mimecom, owning a television network, as well as being the founder of the Synthiotics religion that has gained worldwide acceptance over the years. In the course of the story, he announces his candidacy for President, while along the way working toward achieving immortality by living within both cyberspace and in the minds of the population through a combination of drugs and virtual reality technology that his company marketed and sold to homes all over the country.
While the Wild Palms TV show was set in 2007 (fourteen years in the future from the time of its broadcast), the comic is set squarely in the time in which it was published, making references to the Gulf War, Rodney King, and Bill Clinton’s inauguration along with current films and references to its own upcoming TV miniseries. Wagner populates the comic with celebrities, befitting a story set in the entertainment industry, much like Robert Altman’s 1992 film The Player. While this intermingling of reality and fiction in itself is hardly unique, Wagner goes much further by making real people like Carrie Fisher, Arnold Klein, and Don Simpson essential characters within not just the story, but in the layered conspiracy. The effect of this is an uneasy balance of realism and surrealism which is also reflected in the characters, both in their interactions with each other and in their internal narratives.
For all of the characters in Wild Palms, every experience is filtered through films or books or music.
Everyone speaks to each other in movie quotes. Past memories and present experiences are always filtered and can only be understood through references to films and television shows: Samuel Fuller, Jaques Tati, Frederico Fellini, Sunset Boulevard, Bonanza, any many others (although curiously for a story featuring Carrie Fisher, Star Wars is never mentioned). In the book After Yesterday’s Crash: The Avant-Pop Anthology, Larry McCaffery observes that “[p]op culture has not only displaced nature and ‘colonized’ the physical space of every country on earth, but (just as important) it has also begun to colonize those inner, subjective realms that nearly everyone once believed were inviolable, such as people’s memories, sexual desires, their unconsciousness.”(McCaffery xiii). While this particular aesthetic of art-in-conversation-with-art-through-the-audience dominated the media landscape in the 1990s and beyond (Tarantino and Kevin Smith, Barton Fink and Preacher), it practically began with Wagner and Allen and Wild Palms.
As stated above, the collected Wild Palms has been out of print for a long time, and has been largely forgotten along with the TV miniseries it spawned. It deserves the be seen again. At the very least, it deserves better than just a “based on” credit to a TV miniseries. While the miniseries definitely had some problems, particularly with miscast roles (Jim Belushi just wasn’t the best choice for Harry Wyckoff), it does have a certain charm in that it was a risky proposition for network television: a surreal science fiction story with elements of cyberpunk fiction (and a William Gibson cameo) that satirized media and Scientology. Although, curiously still in print from AMOK books is The Wild Palms Reader, a collection of essays, memos, journal entries, letters, and fiction written by some of the characters along with commentary and thought pieces written by Genesis Porridge, Malcolm McLaren, Lemmy Kilmister, William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, E. Howard Hunt, Pat Cadigan, and many others. Most likely, it was inspired by The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer, which was written to provide some insight into the characters and world of Twin Peaks. Like the Wild Palms comic, The Wild Palms Reader is a unique blend of fact and fiction as well as art and commerce. While it exists ostensibly as a tie-in to the miniseries, it becomes much more just on the strengths and diversity of the contributors.
De Bordes, Elisabeth. Postmodern Paranoia and Philip K. Dick: An Investigation into Paranoia and its Benefits in our Society in Relation to Two of Philip K. Dick’s Works. http://dare.uva.nl/document/464094
Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari. Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia
McCaffery, Larry ed. After Yesterday’s Crash: The Avant-Pop Anthology.