Monday, 1 January 2018

Plastic Forks

Ted McKeever Plastic Forks (1990)
I was sufficiently invested in the minutiae of the comics industry back in 1990 to recall Ted McKeever being pushed as the new Bill Sienkiewicz, or at least that's how it felt at the time. Bill Sienkiewicz introduced something not unlike Dadaist collage to the comic books and remains one of the greatest artists to ever dabble with the medium, maybe even the greatest on a good day. Ted McKeever's art doesn't actually share much in common with that of Sienkiewicz beyond the occasionally scratchy line, but existed at a related tangent to what more or less everyone else was drawing in caped terms - think expressionist splatters and the influence of European cinema rather than mild-mannered reporters vanishing into phone booths.

Plastic Forks was issued in five luxuriously printed installments of sixty pages each, flogged on eBay when I needed the money, then repurchased more recently once I'd built up sufficient regret over the sale; but now that I have them back, I realise why I couldn't remember much about Plastic Forks, namely that I probably only read it once. I also realise why I only read it once. It's a tale of lives reduced to commodity, made disposable like plastic forks - the scientists of the tale as much as the animals upon which they perform terrible experiments towards dubious ends. The dynamic of the story spins from one of the scientists becoming the victim of his own experiments, followed by four issues of running around in pursuit of redress.

The artwork is mostly breathtaking, hallucinatory and expressionist, all contrast and jagged edges; which works beautifully as a vehicle for the industrialised cruelty of the tale, but which falls short when broaching the more tender concerns of the humans at the mercy of the machine. Another problem is that McKeever's illustration occasionally borders on abstract, leaving room for ambiguity when it's working on behalf of the story, but simply bewildering when it fails.

Doctor Henry Apt's coffee spray on page seven of the second issue is one example, a reaction to a detail of overheard conversation which becomes apparent later and meanwhile sends the reader thumbing back in hope of working out what he or she missed. So the story suffers from an impressionistic quality which seems at odds with what it's trying to do, combined - regrettably - with blandly utilitarian dialogue which feels like a self-conscious afterthought: I only hope I can cut through in time, or it's a long shot, but the only way to find out if it works is to try it, and the like. McKeever could have used a collaborator, or at least a more interactive editor.

Plastic Forks does what it does, looks fucking astonishing, but simply could have been a lot better. It's probably unfair to compare it to Sienkiewicz' Stray Toasters, but Stray Toasters was great because Sienkiewicz worked as hard on telling a story as he did on illustrating it. By comparison Plastic Forks feels like wonderful art in search of an author.

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