The merging of facts and history with the conventions of comic books puts The Secret History of DB Cooper from Oni Press in an interesting place. It is based on an actual crime, but so loaded with the ideas of monsters and science fiction that it reveals much about our cultural pantheon at the present. We worship at the altar of conspiracy, that what we are told happened regarding any number of events is not the truth. That The Secret History of DB Cooper grounds itself in an emotional plot, the quest for a loved one, makes it all the more clear that we are not convinced by official stories.
“DB Cooper,” a mistaken identity perpetrated by a less than careful reporter, was a man using an alias to hijack an airplane and make off with $200,000. He was never caught after jumping out of the commercial airplane he took control of in 1972. Many theories have emerged as to what happened. The story and what happened to “Dan Cooper” (the actual name the hijacker used) has become the stuff of urban legend and parody. The case has become part of our cultural lexicon, showing up in movies, TV and books. For example, it became the basis for the plot of an episode of NewsRadio in 1998 where at the end none other than Batman TV star Adam West is revealed to be the actual DB Cooper.
Writer and artist Brian Churilla builds upon this pop culture fascination with the mysterious DB Cooper by weaving a tale that plays with the conventions of graphic storytelling. His story, taking a cerebral science fiction approach, mixes the idea of monsters and heroes, spies and patriots, folk legends and conspiracy theories to create a vast possibility of criminal history meeting speculative fiction. It is an imaginative book that at its core is merely about a father finding his lost daughter.
What the legend of DB Cooper allows Churilla from a narrative perspective is the ability to create a perplexing tale. The supposed actual exploits form a guide that doesn’t limit the creativity, but focuses the narrative—there is a beginning, middle and end, but everything in between is at the artist’s discretion. And encompassing what the entire artist label entails—a creator of art—Churilla populates his speculative science fiction with the stuffs of legend and lore.
In this Secret History of DB Cooper, Cooper is a former government agent working on a plane of existence that is mostly assessable through the mind; a place where all of reality is the vicious nightmare of monsters and gore. We each have a place on the realm, but we are the gross exaggerations of nightmares and horrors. It’s a place where an assassin can find a mental projection of a target and kill him from inside his own mind. It is wondrous and monstrous at the same time, reflecting a point of view of the creator: what’s on the outside is definitely more beautiful than what is on the inside. Or, the peace we want on the outside is difficult to purchase in and out of the realm without some sort of sacrifice.
That the story contains multiple levels of existence might be a bit confusing, but the main thrust of the story comes down to a man, Cooper, searching for the daughter he lost. This point, while definitely salient to the overall story, is also the point that grounds the entire effort in an emotional place that any reader can understand. It allows the rest of the craziness to unfold unfettered by the demands of contemporary storytelling.
With issue #5 of The Secret History of DB Cooper, Churilla ties together every plot point and merges it with the actual history of the infamous event, even proposing his own take on the whereabouts of Cooper. It is an end that is satisfying in its cerebral twists as it is in furthering the idea of a vast conspiracy.
And we love a good conspiracy.
It appeals to are insatiable appetite that there is more than just what we see. That the truth or what we want to be the truth is circumvented or subverted by something out of our control. It helps us cope at times with events that are larger than ourselves. It allows for our imaginations to run away from reality. It helps to explain the unexplainable. It solves the problems we face in the real world of nothing really ever being wrapped up neat and tidy.
While much of The Secret History of DB Cooper is not wrapped up neat and tidy (so to say), it does present us an acceptable version of events (from a comicbook perspective) that ties the needs of a nation with the needs of a father lost in his mind. And its visuals are a wonderful presentation of the sane and the insane.