Cubes and Ladders

Corporate Allegory

The latest project from Damon Hurd, author of My Uncle Jeff, A Sort Of Homecoming, and The White Elephant, is deceptively simple. The story of Envy Saint-Claire, Temporary #1 tells the story of a one-day gig at a typical office. Like many 20- and 30-somethings, the heroine Envy is one of a growing number of migrant office workers, those so-called “slackers” and “Gen Xers” who would rather live paycheck to paycheck with a measure of freedom than be tied down by a stable, yet inescapable, day job.

However, as the reader progresses into the debut issue of this new ongoing series, things become anything but simplistic. Hurd sets the stage with a introduction that presents the whole issue as a game of “Cubes and Ladders”. Envy’s goal is to progress through the cubicle maze, avoid the bosses, and get paid. The back-cover solicitation sets a similarly light-hearted tone, describing “Calvin C. Nelson HMO — the corporation where the inmates are literally running the asylum”.

As the solicitation basically gives away the main twist of this issue, I feel safe in revealing that Envy’s fellow office workers are really mental patients. Part of a psychological study, they work in a simulated office environment, and each patient has a task. One person delivers “e-mail” — messages written on sticky notes. One person is the “fax machine”, sitting in a cabinet making beeping noises. Envy, hired to enter the data from the study, is accidentally mixed-up with a patient whose “data-entry” job is nothing more than paper shredding. Cue wacky hi-jinks.

Despite what seems like the set-up from a two-bit comedy, the story has real teeth. There is real pathos when Envy discovers the office secret, and talks to one patient, desperately longing to see his family after months of “work”. The commentary on the modern corporate world is obvious, but still striking. This office of lunatics is not much different from a typical work environment, as anyone who has worked in a cubicle can tell you. Tyrannized by a maniacal managers, pressured into working long hours, forced to put the company before your family, endlessly bombarded by platitudes like “there’s no ‘I’ in team”, and all the while performing seemingly meaningless tasks, the workforce of the U.S. is slowly going crazy.

Envy isn’t all she seems to be, either. A brief moment in the middle of the story has major consequences at the end, and forces the reader to rethink Envy’s character completely. She becomes, perhaps, less a “real” person and more of a symbol. She is almost allegorical, as her name would suggest, representing a concept instead of a human being. And the ending of the story radically redefines its boundaries, turning what had seemed to be a series of single-issue, comic vignettes into a surreal psychological study.

Although it may seem a bit “heavy” from this review, Temporary is a breezy read. Hurd’s plotting is straightforward, his dialogue is colloquial and easily accessible, and Rick Smith’s simple line art compliments it perfectly.

I look forward to following this series, as Hurd’s work has always been enjoyable. While a definite change of pace from his earlier, more personal works, Temporary retains the most important quality that Hurd brings to his comics, the ability to profoundly interest the reader in the everyday lives of its characters.