[12 December 2013]
Pretty much anything can be entertainment if you dress it up as such. That’s the lesson of YouTube and reality TV and the 24-hour news cycle and so many other forms of media currently available. The darkest horrors and grayest mundanities of the world both get plenty of stage and airtime now, as does everything in between, and someone somewhere is consuming all of it. With so many fictional, non-fictional, and semi-fictional sources of entertainment at our disposal, the challenge for each of us becomes choosing what to let in. The sheer number of options makes that daunting enough, but further complicating our decision-making processes are the endless attempts by each option to grab our attention first and most often. There is of course the bombardment of advertising, as well as the constant tracking and reporting of ratings/pageviews/whatever metric is used in any given medium, all designed to make us feel like we have to be fans of this or that to avoid missing something important and popular. Nobody wants to be left out of the newest craze, so we too often listen to the hype, letting it dictate our tastes instead of the other way around.
That dilemma is the sneaky center of Simon Spurrier and Jeff Stokely’s Six-Gun Gorilla. The story is set in a future where an intergalactic war is also Earth’s most-watched TV program, and where that kind of “reality” entertainment has all but completely replaced any fictional storytelling traditions. By the series’ conclusion, this world is turned on its head when the population is reminded how satisfying and meaningful a well-structured, beginning-middle-and-end narrative can be, as opposed to the endless repetitive violence of war. To make this point as powerfully and convincingly as they can, though, Spurrier and Stokely leave the message in the background (or maybe the underground) at first, zeroing in on their characters and the current status quo of this imagined future before using those characters to dismantle that status quo. The result is a story that’s intensely, heart-breakingly personal and entirely its own thing, yet contains a healthy portion of relevance for literally anyone who might read it.
The main character no doubt once had a real name, but in this book he goes only by Blue, short for Blue-3425, his rank in the military. Blue is just one of many “blues,” people who sign up for the war effort to be intentionally expendable troops. These are folks who, for any number of reasons, no longer want to live, so they agree to die in the first wave of combat so that the real soldiers might survive, and also so the viewers back home can get all the high-definition guts and gore they demand. The blues all have implants in their minds that allow them to broadcast everything they see back to Earth so that normal, everyday people can experience their deaths vicariously from the comfort of their own homes. It’s a disturbing but not unbelievable expansion of what we have today, combining the up-close-and-personal aspect of reality TV with the shock-and-awe elements of the modern news’ coverage of any conflict. Why merely report on the war when you can stick people in the middle of it as disposable human video cameras?
Trouble is, protagonist Blue doesn’t die like he’s supposed to. Not because he suddenly has a change of heart and becomes less suicidal, but due to simple dumb luck on the battlefield. His inadvertent survival leads to two important developments right away: 1. a dying general gives Blue a pocket watch and asks him to bring it back to the general’s wife on Earth (see below for more on that), and 2. Blue meets the gun-toting primate of the comic’s title. The gorilla (who’s never really named in-story) arrives seemingly out of nowhere to save Blue from an angry group of deserters, and from there the two form an amusing partnership, a sort of buddy cop dynamic but placed in a sci-fi/western story. Blue is nervous, clueless, and self-involved, while the gorilla is stoic, wise, and always working for the greater good. Also, the gorilla is basically unstoppable in combat while Blue is as inept and unsure of himself as they come. These differences are brightly and boldly highlighted by their opposing physicalities. It’s not just a big vs. small thing. Blue looks fragile all over; he’s scrawny, he’s got thin glasses frames, and he’s kind of hunched all the time, like he’s already been bent so snapping him in half would be easier than normal. The gorilla, meanwhile, is thick and solid. He moves like a blur, sure-footed and agile, but when he stops he looks immovable, and is essentially shaped like a mountain. Even his cigar seems like it’d be impossible to break. For most of the series, then, the gorilla seems to be the one with all the answers and power, but in the end it turns out that he and Blue need each other equally in order to do what has to be done.
What Blue and the gorilla accomplish, accidentally at first but eventually with an actual plan in place, is to uncover the big lie of the perpetual war in which everyone else is so invested. Ostensibly a fight between Earth and one of its colonies over fair crop prices and wages when it began, the war has by now become such an entertainment phenomenon (and enormous ad revenue stream) that it’s no longer in anyone’s best interest to see it come to an end. So the two sides are secretly working together, sharing each other’s troop movements to guarantee there’s always fighting somewhere, but never anything decisive. They pass these messages through devices that automatically hide the information deep in the mind of whoever is carrying them, and those devices are disguised as pocket watches so nobody else—soldier or citizen—catches on. So when Blue thinks he’s being handed a sentimental trinket from a fallen general for a romantic cause, what he’s actually getting is top-secret info that has the potential to undo the war effort on both sides. Which is exactly what happens, it just takes some time to get there.
Because before Blue can find the inner strength and presence of mind to dig out the secrets buried in his brain, before he can take on the grand tragedy of the society in which he lives, he must first face his own demons, his personal tragedy, the reason he signed up to get killed in the first place. Blue had his heart broken, and without the woman he loves, he saw no reason to live. That’s what landed him in the middle of the war, and the memory of his lost love haunts him all the time, lingering on the edges of his mind. He refuses, however, to look at it directly or let himself remember it completely. He wants to protect himself from further pain, and because that means there is whole area of his memory that he ignores, it is within his thoughts of his ex that the “pocket watch” hides the troop movement details. The idea is that Blue won’t find them in that section of his mind, but with some tough love guidance from the gorilla, he gets to a place where he can.
What the gorilla offers Blue is a new way of looking at his relationship. Instead of focusing so intently on only the hurt and loss of the end, Blue has the option to view his old love in its entirety, from top to bottom, good and bad, and think of it as a complete and worthwhile story. It may have a sad ending, because some narratives do, but that doesn’t make it a bad story. Its unpleasant conclusion doesn’t invalidate the rest of it. Blue still felt the love he felt, and learned the things he learned, and grew in whatever way he grew because of it. It was such an important part of his life that once it was gone, he decided the best next step would be death, and while that’s a depressing final act, it certainly indicates that some marvelous stuff must’ve happened in the beginning. Once Blue is pushed by the gorilla to appreciate the whole of his broken romance, instead of just lamenting the breaking point, it opens Blue’s mind up so he can also discover the war’s dirty little secret.
By acknowledging the worth of his own tiny tale, Blue is able to affect the bigger, all-encompassing narrative of the war. And along the way, he gains such tremendous support from the people on Earth who watch his adventure with the gorilla unfold, it’s impossible for the powers that be to prevent him from ruining their evil scheme. They try harder and harder as he gets ever closer to finding out what’s really going on, but the momentum Blue and the gorilla get going is too strong to even be slowed, let alone stopped. When Blue’s feed gets cut so no one can watch through his eyes anymore, the public is outraged, clamoring to know, “How does it end?” The people are so used to seeing the same old same old, i.e. watching random blues get deployed only to be brutally killed. When Blue and his fantastic action hero ape give them something a bit meatier and more interesting, something that builds logically from its start towards a logical endpoint, everybody eats it up. Though many are surprised or even confused by it, they all find themselves far more drawn to Blue’s struggles than they ever were to the endless, mindless type of entertainment they’re used to. When offered a real hook, a story to follow that’s actually going somewhere, everyone is enthusiastically on board.
That is Blue and the gorilla’s real triumph, not just uncovering the truth about the war, but getting the rest of the world invested in learning that truth, too, by providing them with a more satisfying type of narrative. And in that accomplishment can be found the most important part of this series: its position on the power of good storytelling. Whether you like the particulars of Six-Gun Gorilla’s narrative or not, its message about the significance of appreciating the stories in our lives, be they real or made up or some combination of the two, is a good lesson to learn (or relearn, as the case may be). Even if you’re not a fan of this specific comicbook, it’ll make you a bigger fan of the things you already like.
I am leaving out so much. Too much, probably, because there are whole branches of the narrative I have yet to address. But were I to fully explain everything this series contains, like the behind-the-scenes scenes of the people responsible for broadcasting the war, or the pattern of strangers sharing their life stories with Blue as soon as they meet him, or the bizarre laws of physics and weather patterns of the story’s setting—if I got into all of that, it would leave nothing to be discovered by reading the actual comic. And what Six-Gun Gorilla is all about is encouraging us to seek out good stories for ourselves, to find and hold onto whatever value and meaning they contain. Or, at any rate, that’s the piece of it that rang loudest and truest for me, though I’m sure it has different things to offer different people. And it definitely has something for everyone.
Matthew Derman loves comicbooks and writes about them every week on his blog Comics Matter. He also loves his lady and their two dogs.