Charlie Gillespie, a longtime contributor to 2000AD and Judge Dredd magazine, ventures into new territory later this month with the digital release of The Many: Once Upon a Time in Utopia, a graphic novel written and illustrated solely by him.
One thing that caught my eye upon my initial reading of Once Upon a Time in Utopia was an art piece found just three pages in. At first, the use of a seething mass of flies seems in keeping with the dirty, gritty, and dystopian themes promoted in the preceding pages. What struck me was the fluorescent blue hue, particularly as the story progresses and this artwork appears and reappears again, taking on a sort of fractal quality.
This is not to say the initial narrative doesn’t carry the story or capture the attention. Part one, “The Fly”, serves as a template for the narrative as a whole. Satirical commentary on current affairs frames the presumed torture and inevitable rescue of a group of hostages. The story takes its first surreal turn as these events are broken by some literally acid-induced mayhem. As a humorous aside, I will happily accept that our main protagonist, Thomas Darker, gains some quite prodigious magical powers after consuming some L.S.D. I’m just still wondering where the tab itself came from.
To return however, the story is undoubtedly non-linear; part two, “Godless”, being set a mere ten days before the events seen in part one. If we didn’t know so already, the reader soon realises that Gillespie has set his work in a not-too-distant and somewhat plausible future. A rather ironically humorous speech about freedom is delivered from Capitol Hill by President Sarah Palin. Thereon the first book’s arid sense of foreign hostility is traded for one of homely familiarity, particularly for the British reader. The tense drama and delirium of the preceding chapter is starkly contrasted by a sense of the mundane. Girlfriends gossip and buddies banter. Yet always with a hint of the sinister; a character whose surname is Darker walking into a pub called The Vortex for instance. The familiar realism is counterpointed by some degree of mysterious conspiracy at the heart of the American and British governments.
Our four protagonists, it seems, are everyman characters of sorts. The two who stand out the most are Dave and Tommy. Dave reminds me of Bill Hicks in both appearance and demeanor, spouting conspiracy theories while imbibing hallucinogens and chain smoking. Tommy has a look and an attitude that screams central character even before the plot develops towards that conclusion. The leather-jacket-and-sunglasses-wearing, chain-smoking, serial lover. What sets Tommy Darker apart from many other characters in fiction are not just his increasingly apparent occult powers, more so it is his polemic prowess. As Tommy Darker and, to some degree, Gillespie’s rhetoric becomes more persuasive, so the otherworldly conspiracy within the industrial military complex grows darker and absurd in equal measure. However they perpetually find themselves somewhat helpless and frustrated in the face of this common man’s charisma.
I spoke of the interplay between social commentary and the supernatural, and I’d like to share just one example found in the book itself. A conversation between Tommy and Big Man that takes place at Karl Max’s grave is followed by mass slaughter and a sacrificial and ritualistic offering at Speakers’ Corner. What is interesting is that it is our hero Tommy committing these acts, albeit against the tyranny of our capitalist oppressors and their agents. Thereafter, in a matter of days Tommy’s speeches at Speakers’ Corner – any one of which resonates with the world outside of the book as much as inside – inspire thousands, earn him the support of many, and frustrate the ruling elite to no end.
Personally, I found myself reminded of the hopeful determination found in The Invisibles. Added to this is the matter-of-fact nature of the supernatural with the insolence and insurrection found within Preacher. However The Many is by no means derivative. One could conceive of it as the chain-smoking, sometime-drinking, surly, smart, capable, and self-aware love child of these two books.
At no point are we given any explanation for Tommy’s ability to see and talk to otherworldly entities or to fold space, nor are we given any concrete reason for the presence of vampires within the US government. These things, it seems, are unspoken givens whose history may well be revealed as the story goes on.
As Once Upon a Time in Utopia closes, the narrative coagulates and all the elements collide, driving themselves with full steam towards conclusion. Added to this is some good-old-fashioned comic-book fun consisting of explosions, high powered weapons, and laughs. I sincerely hope that the three additional comic relief characters of M, D, and of course Karl Marx’s reanimated corpse are found in the future books.
In conclusion, The Many – though outwardly dystopian or supernaturally horrific – resurrects, for me at least, that sense of hope and purpose many of us had back in those days before 9/11, Iraq, and the War on Terror. (The spirit of Disinfo-Con as I like to call it.) A book (particularly a comic book) that aims towards being so politically potent can often scupper itself. However, without any naivety, pretension, or a sense of being overly stuffy, The Many manages to prompt the reader to really question the state of the world today. Where it truly succeeds is that it does all this while remaining a darn good action and adventure comic.
Charles Gillespie’s The Many: Once Upon a Time in Utopia will be available on the 25th of April, 2014 through Comixology for 99¢/99p.