Monday, July 12, 2010

Bob Fingerman's From The Ashes

Have a nice apocalypse.

After recently finishing off Barefoot Gen, Bob Fingerman’s From the Ashes probably shouldn’t be quite as enjoyable as it is. But it’s such a surprisingly sweet and tender apocalypse story, it’s hard not to like it.

In its 10 volumes, Barefoot Gen shows just how horrible the use of nuclear weapons on human beings is – the recurring image that keeps coming up in the book is the dying of Hiroshima, eyes burnt out, shuffling along with the hands held up so that the melted skin that drips off their fingers doesn’t drag on the ground.

It’s a terrible vision, all the more horrific because it actually happened like that. By the end of the first volume, half of Gen’s family have slowly burned to death in front of him, and it takes a long while for things to get any better from there.

And yet, Fingerman’s comic suggests a much happier Armageddon. There is still an undercurrent of horror in the wake of vast mega-death and one blinding dose of disturbing in a hospital bed, but it’s a much lighter End of the World, even if fundamentalist stupidity survives even better than the cockroaches.

Fingerman’s “speculative memoir” has the world fall apart around Bob and his wife, standing in the ruins of New York City. Something terrible has happened, and while details are light, our heroes adjust to the situation reasonably well – making the most of things and delighting in small pleasures like a toilet that still flushes.

They’re not alone in the strange new world of rubble and radioactivity, and the gentle unpredictability kicks in when they come across other survivors. Just because people have turned into zombies and mutants doesn’t mean they have to be jerks. When the mutants are put to work under an unmutated gun, they complain that they’re too educated for his shit – and they’re right.

The zombies are no bother because they’re dead so they don’t need to eat anything, and everybody still stays away from the cannibals, but that’s just because they’re obnoxious foodies. Even armed faceless drones in hazmat suits have their own doses of personality.

Bob and Michele’s ability to get along with the many diverse groups stands them in good steed and they soon settle into their new lives on a ruined earth. The horror of the situation doesn’t really hit them – Bob is too worried that a pair of leather pants make him look more like a Village person than a Road Warrior and Michele is just glad to have an excuse to ditch her blackberry.

There is still conflict in the wasteland and Fingerman’s politics start shining through when the couple are enter a bunker community devoted to making babies and ruled over by a beautifully bizarre cross between Bill O’Reilly and MODOK.

A proudly outspoken liberal, Bob doesn’t stand for this and is sent off into manual labour for giving Bill a taste of his opinions. In the comic’s notes, Fingerman worries that he’s behind the times by focusing on right-wing extremism just as Bush and crew were packing up their gear, and he’s a little right. Taking the piss out of people like O’Reilly isn’t as much fun as it once was, they were a lot more entertaining when they were trying to defend the most heinous practices of the US government, they’re just a bit irrelevant in opposition, predictably hateful and a bit tired.

Bob and Michele are separated by this big hairy political metaphor, grow tails and come together again and it all wraps up nicely for everybody (except the zombies, who just kinda fell to pieces, and the millions of dead). Even though there are still virulent plagues and mass slaughter, the story just drifts along, and a big explosive climax is deftly side-stepped.

There is still one bit of real existential horror that lasts seven panles and is quickly written off as a heat-stroke hallucination, but life goes on in the new world. By the very end, nature is clawing its way back and some nicely vivid closing pages end the book on a high, after the monotoned ruins and bunker.

Bob Fingerman is a smart comic creator and knows that a real life apocalypse would be truly terrible, but in his head and in his comics, it doesn’t all have to be so bad.

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