Borderland Speakeasy #12: Beelzebub and that Other Devil: Mezzo and Pirus' "King of the Flies"
King of the Flies is a storehouse of noir fiction, tapping such works as David Lynch's Blue Velvet and Denis Johnson's Jesus' Son.
The image of a young man with an enormous insect head in place of his own recurs throughout the first volume of Mezzo and Pirus's stunning King of the Flies, published earlier this year by Fantagraphics.
The strange sight recalls not only the classic horror movie, The Fly (the 1958 and 1986 versions), but also the 1957 story by George Langelann that inspired it, and the Simpsons Treehouse of Horror VIII segment, "Fly vs. Fly." The Simpsons even make a couple of notable appearances in King of the Flies.
Over just 64 pages, the team known as Mezzo and Pirus tell an impressively complex collection of ten interlinked short stories. Each is a first-person monologue, a method that puts readers directly into the mind of the point-of-view character. It happens with a half-dozen characters, which could risk disorientation or repetitiveness, but Mezzo and Pirus are remarkably skillful, and create a deep and believable world. It's meant as a compliment to say that by the end of this book, it feels as if twice as many pages have passed.
The young man who wears the fly's head (a Halloween costume that he likes to wear at other times) is Eric, and he narrates most often. He calls himself the "King of the Flies," altering a nickname his mother has given him, "a reference to some book she'd read." It's never revealed why she called him that, or why he chose to change "Lord" to "King," but it's a suggestive allusion. The story might be intended as a riff on the concepts of William Golding's classic novel, Lord of the Flies. If nothing else, the literary reference seems to open the comic to more than one level of reading.
"I hadn't felt this great in a long time. It was as if my brain was being inflated with a bicycle pump. I felt like it was growing inside my fly-head and about to burst," Eric narrates early in the story. "And I wanted it to happen. I wanted my brain to explode, to splatter all over the fields and meadows."
No one really comes of age in King of the Flies, even though all the pieces of that kind of story are there. Aimless and angry young people spend a few months getting high, having sex and looking for something to pass the time (to say they're looking for meaning would probably give them too much credit for self-awareness).
No one seems to learn much, either. Middle-aged men and women either hang on to their youthful recklessness for too long, with destructive or at least pathetic results, or they seem to buckle under the incomprehensibility of their own existence.
"Tomorrow. When I woke up, that's what was running through my mind. Tomorrow, tomorrow...like a virus," says Eric, coming out of a drug-induced haze near the end of the book, when he begins to piece together a possible meaning of the prior events we've witnessed.
Translated by Helge Dascher and John Kadlecek, presumably from French (Mezzo and Pirus are both French), the story takes place in what appears to be a French suburb, although no specific locations are given. Among the clues: one story mentions a plane crash in a German suburb "only 120 miles or so from here"; people use Euros; Eric reads a magazine with French text visible; and one character identifies a bar patron as "a German."
The story by Michel Pirus uses top-of-the-panel captions exhaustively, with few dialogue balloons until later in the collection, as the various plot threads begin to tighten and the narrative speeds up. Combined with the strict, three-by-three panel layouts (broken up by occasional double-wide, double-tall, or rarely, triple-wide panels) and the 9" by 12.5" format, the captions and lettering style capture the bande dessinée style, although if Tintin ever got this debauched, the Thompson Twins would have to shoot him.
With its bold style and thick lines, dark hues with splashes of garish colour, Pascal (Mezzo) Mesenburg's forceful art is absorbing and weird. It brings to mind other arresting graphic novels such as Black Hole by Charles Burns, Tim Sale's Abanoned Cars, and David Lapham's Stray Bullets, although that doesn't mean it's derivative of them. This is a unique and odd work.
By grounding its surreal, noir and horror aspects squarely in reality, the story also evokes David Lynch's Blue Velvet, which told a similar tale of suburban strangeness punctuated by sex and violence. Where Lynch gave us Dennis Hopper's legendary Frank Booth, Mezzo and Pirus supply us with Ringo, the mad bowler.
"Nobody can look at me and not have to look away," Ringo tells us, in an odd mirror-image version of Frank's classic "don't look at me" line. "Nobody except a few chicks and my own reflection."
The hard-boiled tone brings to mind two early works by Denis Johnson, whose 1985 debut novel, Angels, told a similar story of disaffected and drug-addled youth, and contained such memorable lines as this one (a personal favourite): "All around them men drank alone, staring out of their faces."
But even closer in tone, structure and style is Johnson's renowned story collection, Jesus' Son. Passages like this one would feel at home in King of the Flies: "But nothing could be healed, the mirror was a knife dividing everything from itself, tears of false fellowship dripped on the bar. And what are you going to do to me now? With what, exactly, would you expect to frighten me?"
Borderland Speakeasy appears every other week and explores classic and contemporary horror and crime comics.