The Strange and the Disturbingly Familiar in Sci-Fi Graphic Fiction, ‘Peepers’

Even the scenery in sci-fi graphic fiction ‘Peepers’ looks like the lucid dreams of a Fauvist painter on acid.

Peepers
Patrick Keck
Fantagraphics
February 2021

Art is supposed to make you feel things. It can make your chest feel heavy with regret or cause your heart to flutter with excitement. Some art can even make you feel confused or make your stomach do somersaults. And then there’s an art like Patrick Keck’s sci-fi graphic fiction, Peepers, which makes you feel all these things at once.

It took me weeks to write a review on Peepers — not because it was bad, but because Keck’s graphic novel begs us to spend time interrogating its contents.

Peepers begins with a peaceful scene, the titular character resting in a lush wilderness with her bare backside exposed to the sky. From a distance, she is spotted by her friend and secret admirer, Jeffrey. First, we see him as a dark, lurking figure among the trees; then, we see him close up, hands clutching at his chest and heart. The quietness of these first few panels is sliced by the “zing” and “dunk” of Jeffrey dashing toward Peepers, gazing upon her once more before shouting, “Peepers, wake up!”

Subtle as they may be, these first few panels foreshadow the tension that will consume the book.

Although Peepers seems oblivious to Jeffrey’s emotions, his feelings for her are undeniable to us. “I need some juice,” says Peepers and almost immediately, Jeffrey spreads his wings and declares, “I’ll make you some.” We see him fly to different gardens, gathering watermelons, bananas, pineapples, and berries, mixing them into a colorful concoction for Peepers, who responds with “Thanks, man. We coulda jus went and bought some.”

A thought bubble appears over Jeffrey’s head as he watches Peepers drink his cup of juice: “I love you so much.”

Despite the simplicity of these events, Keck renders his scenes through a psychedelic lens. Peepers, with her electrifying red hair, is voluptuous and oftentimes nude. Her companion Jeffrey appears as a hybrid creature with pointed ears, a long snout, and a hard outer shell covering a pair of wings. 

Even the scenery looks like the lucid dreams of a Fauvist painter on acid. Peepers sleeps on a stonelike plateau surrounded by fields of swirling flowers. At one moment she frolics through golden meadows; in another, she splashes around in a stream of bubbling brown liquid before devouring a radioactive-looking pie.

The plot picks up the pace when Peepers and Jeffrey arrive at a laboratory run by their friend, Harlan. There, we discover he’s been working on a spacesuit for Peepers, which will launch her to a recently-discovered planet, which Harlan describes as a “giant meatball baby”. Its rough, tentacled exterior looks like diseased flesh. 

Still, even amidst these surreal scenes, Keck injects moments of palpable emotion. As Peepers stares at the projection with raised brows, she confesses, “I’m a little nervous. It’s my first spacequest.” But she’s determined to go, believing that the quest “will make me feel like I’m worth something.” 

As my eyes scanned over those words enclosed within one of the rare panels of grey illustrations, I remember exhaling sharply. As I said, art is supposed to make you feel things, and at that moment, seeing words I’ve uttered countless times reflected back at me. It felt like a bag of sand anded on my stomach.

With comics that are as strange and textured as Peepers, it’s easy to dismiss the connections they have to our lives. But putting aside the unfamiliar, I couldn’t help but see the human elements in this graphic novel. 

The night before launch time, Peepers, Jeffrey, and Harlan host a going-away party, during which Jeffrey decides to kiss Peepers while she sleeps. Faced with Peepers’s disgust at this reckless and intrusive gesture, Jeffrey drowns his heartbreak in liquor and begins to form a conspiracy. Before settling into a quiet stupor, he decides to shed his exoskeleton, detach his “inner-lifeforce-organism”, slide into one of Peepers’s “orifices”, and find “a cozy spot on top of her brain.” There, he will hide, only emerging “once Peepers gets to her final destination.”

This plot is simultaneously consumed with Peepers while also failing to consider her at all. His plan to live inside Peepers is not an act of love but rather an act of rape. As his flesh fuses with Peepers’s brain, he invades her thoughts, rewrites her memories, and imposes his emotions over the scenes that unfold in her mind. Jeffrey is driven by control, eventually emerging from her head because he couldn’t stand to see her enjoying herself. Finally, driven by anguish, he rips his tentacles from Peepers’s brain, forces his way through her skull, and shouts at Peepers and those surrounding her: “Stop that laughing you fun-loving buttwads!”

The sequence that follows is grotesque in every sense of the word. Peepers, blood running from her eyes and nose, howls, “Jeff what the fuck’s happening?” over and over. And Jeffrey, realizing the weight of his actions, is unable to muster up a response. When he finally does find the words, Jeffrey reveals his shame: “I hid inside you because I’m scared all the time.” He references the kiss from the previous night, saying, “I thought I had damaged things too much. I was embarrassed.”

In a brief moment of tenderness, Peepers affirms that she would’ve forgiven Jeffrey, but this moment is quickly punctuated by violence as she pummels him into a grisly mess. 

This episode is not only challenging but also triggering. The bright colors and busy composition of Keck’s drawings evoke the emotions of the scene. We’re able to feel the frustration, anger, and agony that fills the scene. My head spins in circles along with Peepers as she asks again and again, “why?” I can almost taste the acidic flavor of disgust and grasp the emptiness of having my body stolen from me.

The heaviness of this chapter is at odds with the lightness of the opening pages, but this contrast is what gives Peepers depth. But Keck doesn’t end the story here. Instead, he takes a stab at healing this fracture with a literal and figurative restoration. 

After a gruesome confrontation, Peepers and Jeffrey are absorbed by the surface of the meatball planet. Recalling Harlan’s comment about the planet “teeming with life”, the two characters are passed through intestines and bladders, veins and arteries, before finally reaching the planet’s core. There, they engage in an eruptive act where Peepers reclaims her power before detonating the meatball planet. 

Watching these extraordinary visions unfold, it’s not hard to understand why Keck spent years developing Peepers. The graphic novel is an exercise in world-building just as much as it is an act of storytelling. While the plot is at times aloof and absurd, the relationships are evocative. With the turn of every page, we are encouraged to consider the adage, “actions speak louder than words”. 

Keck pushes us to consider the ways we move through the world and treat others. What are the effects of our actions? How can we build better worlds, better relationships? Peepers asks all these questions while provoking us to feel. The graphic novel is not an easy read, but that’s what makes it worthwhile.

RATING 7 / 10
PopMatters