At 112 pages and $16.95, this intended trilogy features creators such as Larry Todd, Mark Roland, and Mark Bode (son of legendary artist Vaughn Bode, whose creation the Cheech Wizard inspired numerous street artist copycats). The sprawling tale picks up from the 1960’s SF Bay Area counterculture movement and postulates an alternate future full of terrorism, new age theory, trans-dimensional travelers, and all manner of conspiracy theory threads. Toward the end, we even get to see New York City 1,000 years in the future as an Iranian Navy Admiral discovers the lost ruins of the once mighty civilization and attempts to take the seized body of The Last American back to Tehran. Many of the numerous URLs listed in the book don’t seem to work, and I’m not sure if those are intentional plants just used as window dressing for effect or if they were working at some point.
Visually, The Strangest Story Ever Told is stunning, almost to the point of being overwhelming. It’s rooted in a contemporary art hallmark of re-appropriating and re-contextualizing found imagery. There’s an analog feel to the vast collaged images, and their inherent fuzzy reproduction quality lends a vibrant and raw vibe, like an “uber-zine” with a relatively low print run and regional circulation pattern. As a reader, you’re constantly trying to identity the original source image, analyze its new embedded use and surroundings, and then reconcile the meaning behind the juxtaposition. The majority of the images are in this collage style, but occasionally John Burnham’s art graces the pages in a more traditional comix look, which bears some Robert Crumb influence. It’s fun, yet taxing at times, so this book is certainly built for the more adventurous consumer, not wanting one of those pesky familiar formats to contend with. Thematically, it blends pure science, 1950’s style sci-fi, geography, fine art, comix, cybernetics, gender politics, film, period parlance, religion, therapy sessions, new age doctrine, and just about all popular forms of media and social reference. It is a visual blender of human culture, with words like “grok” forcing the reader to immediately succumb to a specific time, place, vibe, and way of thinking about the world around them. There are extensive typos permeating the work, but it tends to come with the territory and add effect to a publication like this, as if the world is crumbling around us as we try to categorize what we see and make sense of it all.
The protagonist seems to want to test the world around him for the existence of a higher power. This quest leads to a messianic cult which embroils him in a global terrorist plot, where martial law leads to outright spiritual warfare, and then on to cosmic conspiracy. The protagonist always seems to be one step away from ultimate understanding, but never quite reaches it. He doesn’t quite stop the terrorist plot, the sex is never quite consummated, and the main thrust of his monologuing (as well as our perception of the story) is trying to determine if he indeed has a credible vision of the future, or if this is simply the fevered ranting of a paranoid schizophrenic with delusions of grandeur. The meandering narrative explores every conversational tangent it presents, through space/time portals, down this rabbit hole of reality and understanding, sexual analogies, Bay Area racial politics post-Pearl Harbor, the rise of the X Boys gang in Oakland’s inner city, right up to parallels between 9/11 and a plot to detonate a “Red Mercury” nuclear device atop “the pyramid building” (aka: The Transamerica Building) in downtown San Francisco. It all feels like a Modern New Age Political Fairy Tale, as the rise of the soul draining corporations ensues, a moral vacuum is created, society breaks down after a series of terrorist incidents, and giant irradiated rats roam the streets in this Universal Game. It’s a bit difficult to judge the first third of a story, but who knows when/if we’ll see its conclusion; Book One boasts that it was 20 years in the making. I enjoyed elements of the political postulating and a skewed vision of the apocalyptic future, but the highly unfocused and non-traditional narrative gives the feeling that this massive project has a truly ambitious reach which may ultimately exceed its actual grasp. Grade B.