Big Neon Kill Machine

In Suiciders, series creator Lee Bermejo gives us an elegant drama of transitions, and in doing this offers perhaps the most innovative mediation on LA itself.

We enter the Coliseum with The Saint, the titular Suicider everyone in New Angeles is rooting for, by a dark tunnel. It’s a tunnel that may as well be a segue from the West Coast of today, the SoCal we know and understand, into a garish, post-apocalyptic, nightmarish LA. Except of course, writer-artist, and series creator, Lee Bermejo gives us an LA that isn’t that markedly different. The seeds of the post-apocalyptic nightmare world he conducts us into are clearly apparent even in the Los Angeles of today.

The Suiciders of the book are a class of character, they’re are latter-day, post-apocalyptic gladiators. They fight deathmatches in the Coliseum, (which can be made out on the book’s first splash page). Not a coliseum, but The Coliseum, itself the hollowed out and partly collapsed upper floors of the Capitol Records Building. A building only partly demolished in the Big One, the last big quake that changed everything, that divided Los Angeles into the beautiful, if ruined New Angeles and cut it off from the decimated, impoverished Lost Angeles.

It’s easy to want to read Suiciders as a parable for the immigration crisis. But don’t. You’d be robbing the book of its true social commentary. Suiciders could just as easily be set in Washington, DC, among politicians, or cast as a parallel narrative alongside Citizen Kane, detailing a the life of a rival in the publishing industry. (In fact, if you’re looking for Orson Welles movies, maybe Third Man, only starring Welles, though, or maybe A Touch of Evil, both starring and directed by Welles, wouldn’t be bad stops. Not because they deal with territorial borders, but because they deal with social limits that, ring-fence, enshrine, but also exclude and prohibit people from material well being).

The far larger game that Suiciders stalks is the idea of a utopian enclave driven on an economy of bloodlust and perpetual violence. Think of every “underculture” piece of scifi you’ve ever read or seen. Michael Anderson’s Logan’s Run, Michael Bay’s The Island (from about a decade back now), Neil Blomkamp’s far more recent Elysium, Katsuhiro Otomo’s Metropolis (based on Osamu Tezuka’s Metropolis, based in turn on Fritz Lang’s original) or even the granddaddy of them all, the original H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine, starring Rod Taylor and directed by George Pal.

Every movie that gives us Morlocks and Eloi (whether the “Eloi” characters, sheltered from sight, are the innocents, as in The Island or whether it’s the monstrous “Morlocks” who live in the technologically clean utopia, as in Elysium). What all of these “underculture” movies have in common is a split in culture, and in the norms prevailing in the different societies. In every “underculture” movie or fiction, the utopia is always the clean, eco-friendly, technologically-enabled society driven by an equally morally unambiguous economy. Whether such a utopia is populated by “Morlocks” or “Eloi” is ultimately immaterial to the constitution of the utopian economy and its drivers.

What Bermejo presents is a wildly, and enthusiastically different vision. What if the economic drivers of the utopia were not monstrous (as in the case of Elysium), but more importantly, what if the drivers were not unambiguous? There’s no doubt New Angeles is the better side of the fence to be on. Materially, there’s improved healthcare, wealth, civilian infrastructure, and New Angeles isn’t morally checkmated in the way Time Machine future society is, with the Eloi basically being livestock for the Morlocks. Even The Saint, the greatest and most beloved Suicider, is hard to take seriously when he spews race hatred against Lost Angelenos. Imagine Hulk Hogan taking the stage at WrestleMania to talk about Communist ideological penetration. Right, maybe only as a lead-in to wail on Nikolai Volkoff.

The dangers of New Angeles are not present because of the city-state’s bordering Lost Angeles, they are internal to its own economy. Dismiss The Saint’s rants all you want, but when you see what these rants plug into, it isn’t so easily dismissed. When you see the spectacle of death and violence that is the real basis of the New Angeleno economy (that economy of easy elective surgical procedures and all-round material well being), when you hear arbitrary border patrol soldiers acknowledge how cultural technicians like Carl the Announcer have made The Saint’s rants a part of the everyday landscape of New Angeles, you begin to realize what’s at stake.

There’s a blood and death and gore spectacle on tap, one would assume, every night in New Angeles. It’s something that hypes the populace up into a frenzy. It’s something that offers an even more insidious framing of the Roman maxim, that what’s called for to allow the Caesar to act without oversight, in the name of the Republic, is to feed the populace with bread and circuses. Imagine a world where bread appears as circuses, and circuses appear as bread. A world where there’s no hierarchy of needs; where basic needs like food and shelter are interchangeable with ancillary needs like entertainment.

This is the true post-apocalyptic element that Bermejo offers us in Suiciders; the unmitigated horror of an economy at once instantaneously recognizable and alienatingly monstrous. As a dark mirror held up to our own economy, which more and more seems to cast penny-pinching and bargain-hunting less as factory-oriented labor and more as the kind of sport wherein we ourselves can become the entertainment, you could do a lot worse than the opening issue of Suiciders.

It’s the socially sanctioned bloodlust economy James Ellroy writes about in “Balls to the Wall”, a crime culture/memoir appearing in his collection, Destination: Morgue.

“Boxing is: Blood sport declawed and reregulated. Cockfights for aesthetes and wimps,” Ellroy writes, “…Mexican boxing is: Boxing distilled. Boxing stoicized. Boxing hyperbolized… Vegas boxing is: Lowlife pomp. Westminster West. Best-of-weight class as best-of-breed. Vegas is Rome revived. Gladiators divert high rollers. Imperial goons exploit muscled maxi-men and mainline their money.”

And later in that same essay, “Mexican boxing is workmanlike. Mexican boxing is inspired. It’s savage emphasis. It’s basic boxing retuned to short range. You move in. You stalk. You cut the ring off. You intimidate with forward momentum. You crowd your man. You eat right-hand leads. You counter and left-hook the body. You instigate exchanges. You trade in close. You take to give. You forfeit your odds for survival. You eat shots. You absorb pain. You absorb pain to exhaust your man and exploit his openings. You absorb pain to assert your bravado.”

It’s no surprise when you turn the page to read, “I felt like El Jefe. Call me Batista. Call me Juan Perón. I viewed my Third World. I dispensed benedictions. I scrutinized and exploited small men.” Of course not, it’s the plot from every crime biopic ever, from Scarface right the way down to commercial flops like Carlito’s Way even into rock music like Thin Lizzy’s “Boys are Back in Town,” or TV shows like the sublime Empire. Every criminal empire is already its own Third World. And every Third World is already post-apocalyptic. Just as New England became the crucible for a Revolution in the way we orient ourselves to our governments, and an overthrowing of the established and accepted rights of kings, so too are the twinned city-states of New Angeles and Lost Angeles already apparent in present day Los Angeles.

But the art in Suiciders doesn’t lie in it being high concept. On the contrary, the art of Suiciders is in its execution. With Suiciders we enter into a world of resemblances and of transitions. At one level Suiciders is meant to, constructed to, evoke sense memory from our own reality. Nobody explains it to us, but that Lost Angeles guy with the WWII tank driver’s leather helmet, and red bandito bandana covering the lower half of his face—he’s the coyote, porting illegals into New Angeles. Nobody explains this to us because nobody needs it. We understand it intuitively, because the world of Suiciders sufficiently resembles our own for us to recognize and manipulate its codes.

So very easily we recognize the Lost Angeleno Coyote for what he is. Just as easily we can recognize other known landmarks, geographically reorganized after the Big One—we see the Capitol Records building, on the edges of the first splash page panorama, there’s the vaguest hint of Chateau Marmont, of the Hollywood Tower. We don’t recognize elements in the landscape, as much as we “see into” the landscape Bermejo presents us. As with the best of comics, closure allows for our own cognitive processes, experience and biases to do most of the heavy lifting.

But we see the sprawling vista of New Angeles from across a stone wall, and Bermejo ratchets up the level of resemblance. This isn’t just Los Angeles thrown to the post-apocalyptic wolves, this is Los Angeles reframed as Jerusalem. Engage discourses of another geopolitical hub that predicates upon an easy economy of exchange between higher order and more basic needs. And of course, engage whatever discourses you have for LA as a “new” Jerusalem.

But this second tier of resemblances goes even further, right to the heart of the book’s iconography. Bermejo gives us the Game of Death itself, in which the Saint and his opponent (as much ideological opponent as opposing combatant), the Reaper, enter into mortal combat. It’s not the safe, flat, open arena we thought it would be. It’s not an empty stonework floor that’s going to run with the blood of lions or Christians or Pagans or whatever. It’s a 3D landscape, parts of the Coliseum’s flooring suddenly thrust upwards, revealing great and ancient machinery (Industrial Revolution machinery that seem to run on steam and seem to date back to Dickens’s overpopulated and misanthropic London). Vast machineries designed for murder, torture and maiming, designed to make such activities look like art, and worse, consumable art.

And Bermejo’s art of resemblances? It takes us right back to New-Angeles-as-Jerusalem. These vast, ugly, steam-powered machines that belong to an older, crueler world, they’re used as much for murder, torture and maiming as they are to power the bright neon directives like KILL or DEATH. Think of promise of technology from earlier worlds, as guaranteed by neon—there’s always the hint of the seedy. Think of Times Square in the ‘70s, or Takeshita Street at night, or Chiba City in the opening chapter of Bill Gibson’s Neuromancer or Ridley Scott’s Tokyo in Black Rain or LA in Bladerunner. Neon equals a Faustian bargain—a well-lit nighttime, but what kind of people would really venture out into the dark, even a nighttime dark made semi-bright?

Again, Bermejo treats us to a kind of sunshine noir version of a post-apocalyptic world. Here the neon isn’t seedy at all, except that, really all of New Angeles is seedy, with the Suiciders Games at the heart of its gladiatorial, Third World economy. And the Big Neon Kill Machine is the perfect banner ad for New Angeles—old, gruesome machinery used to power slightly less old Faustian bargain machinery meant to make you feel safe (but really only lights up a seedy underbelly), that itself inscribes instructions for the most brutal kinds of interaction imaginable. And even this is just the start for something that goes way beyond this first kind of transition, the transition between the post-apocalyptic neonoir and our real world.

Beyond even that, regime of resemblances is an even deeper system, the system of internal resemblances that flow between New Angeles and Lost Angeles. Enter a Coyote tunnel in Lost Angeles, and you transition from that space and time to walking in New Angeles tunnel with the Saint, and exiting into the Coliseum with him, right before the big Suicide. It’s these internal movements, one Angeles to the next, forms the basis for the real working out of the Big Neon Kill Machine of Suiciders—an economy of easy correspondences that show how we’re in a hall of mirrors without even the possibility of any real world referent.

Through a storytelling technique will, with correspondences and transpositions, presented as a drama of transitions, Bermejo is able to achieve with Suiciders what very few writers attempt, let alone actually achieve: a genuine genre bending experience. We start as post-apocalyptic fare, we transition into neonoir, and the subgenera of sunshine noir at that, and finally make it all the way to lurking horror. Bermejo shows that the bloodletting horror of pre-Columbian meso-American culture, something we easily recoil from in horror, is not so alien at all. It’s a horror built on the human psyche and its equal need for economies of both material goods and and spiritual salvation. But it’s when these economies overlap, and their objectives become interchangeable, that the true monsters appears, in ourselves, and our everyday behavior.

All art from Suiciders #1 by Lee Bermejo, published by DC/Vertigo (2015)