The Webcomic Overlook #177: Transient Man
There’s a place in San Francisco called the Tenderloin. It’s a sketchy area filled with crime, drugs, and prostitution. In its past, the neighborhood was filled with boxing gyms, gambling establishments, and speakeasies, and today it remains the same, only replaced with liquor stores and strip clubs.
The seediness is almost a point of cultural pride. Dashiell Hammett, author of the Maltese Falcon, immortalized the area as the base of operations for hard-boiled detective Sam Spade. He elevated the Tenderloin to mythical proportions by transforming it into a place that seethed mystery and danger.
When I visited San Francisco a few years back, I stayed in a hotel a block west of The Tenderloin. Trust me, I wasn’t quite so well versed in San Francisco geopolitics at the time. One thing you notice immediately is that the place is full of homeless people. Generally non-threatening homeless people (at least from what I encountered), but quite numerous nonetheless.
Massive Black Entertainment’s Transient Man is a romantic adventure about the homeless of the Tenderloin. The story is told through a homeless man named Bob who talks to interdimensional beings that aid him on his journey in saving the universe. This high concept premise is already so inherently intriguing that it would have to work incredibly hard to fritter away any goodwill.
After a prologue that ties the story to the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake (which had massive effects on the Tenderloin), we’re introduced to Bob. Bob has been seeing strange creatures all his life. As a kid, he thougt they were his imaginary friends. His concerned parents, though, had him see an psychiatrist, and with the help of some pills, Bob stopped seeing the creatures. Later, when Bob started experimenting with psychedelic drugs in college, he saw the creatures again. He wrote them off as after effects of the strange brew.
Bob got a nice job, married, and raised a kid. The creatures who only he could see wouldn’t stop coming, though. These were grotesque but generally friendly, and they told him that he was destined to save the universe. Bob was reluctant. He wasn’t sure that these creatures weren’t a result of a mental breakdown, and, besides, he had a family to take care of now. But they eventually got to him. One night, Bob just walked out the door, abandoned his family, and began living on the streets, reluctantly embracing his role as The Chosen One.
What follows is a clever parody of every Campbellian hero’s quest saga ever. After one of Bob’s friends get killed when he’s swallowed by a light that explodes from somewhere in his chest, Bob undertakes a mission to bring his killer to justice. He must venture to the far off land … of Sacramento!
As he goes on his journey, he’s joined by several of his fellow homeless. Fernando is sort of his Sam Gamgee, a jolly former insurance adjuster who knows which dumpsters hold the best scraps of food. Peaches is a crack addict who becomes Bob’s love interest. There’s also a large, childish Black man who the group imagine is a mighty barbarian warrior.
It’s never clear if these visions are legitimate or if they really are just hallucinations. It reminds me a lot of Slaughterhouse Five. You generally trust Billy Pigrim’s recollection of events (which portrays of author Kurt Vonnegut’s real world horrors in Dresden) until you get to the part where he talks about getting kidnapped by aliens from Tralfamadore… which makes you wonder if the narrator was off his rocker after all. Similarly, Transient Man play with the same contrast between stark reality and fanciful imagination to the point where the reader can’t be too sure if Bob’s recollection of events can be fully trusted. It simultaneously puts us both in the shoes of Bob and how friends, family, and strangers view Bob.
Take, for instance, one of the comic’s most visually arresting characters: an man whose entire body is covered in a cloak made of pigeons. Bob sees him as a dangerous bounty hunter for his main enemy, and that his pigeons are his eyes and ears (like Saruman’s crows in Lord of the Rings). Now, the guy is clearly dangerous. He’s seen brutally killing several innocent people who get in his way. He smashes one guy’s face in with a blunt object and wields a security guard like a baseball bat. There’s no question that the threat itself is real.
But is he magic, or is he just a garden variety homicidal maniac? After all, just because pigeons follow him around doesn’t make him magic. There’s a scene where Bob has to fight off a flock of these pigeons, and it can be interpreted as either a standard fantasy scenario where our hero valiantly fights off mystical creatures … or, as seen through his friend Fernando’s eyes, it’s just some crazy homeless man getting freaked out by pigeons.
This uneasy divide gets to a very interesting truth: Bob’s world, whether real or not, is a far more fascinating place than the “real” world that he left behind. So what if it turns out to be an elaborately constructed fantasy world? And then you get into the delicious conundrum of what should or shouldn’t be regarded as realistic in fiction. Is a homeless man being guided with transdimensional aliens really all that more bizarre than a knight in shining armor who takes magical weaponry from a lady who lives in a lake?
But let’s take a step back from the philosophical and let’s talk about the art a little.
Holy crap, is it good.
I’m not sure who to praise here, since I didn’t see any credits listed for Transient Man beyond Massive Black Entertainment. Maybe that’s all I need to know. Massive Black provides concept art for some highly regarded games. Games with titles like BioShock, inFamous, and Dragon Age. If you’ve ever played any of those games, you can probably guess that the art feels grimy, rusty, and worn … but yet it still inspires a sense of wonder. You get the same sense in Transient Man.
Dark alleys, freight cars, and freeway underpasses are so realistic that I instinctively swat at imagined houseflies. At the same time, the thick, painterly brushstrokes and the generally warm colors bring forth a subtle touch of magic realism. There’s a point in the story where, after pages and pages of anticipation, Bob and his friends finally arrive at Sacramento. The palette has generally be faded and yellow, but now it bursts into green. When we catch a glimpse of Sacramento it’s … basically what you’d see from someone’s travel photos or something included in a travel brochure. It’s normaller than normal. But you also see it from our transient’s eyes as a strange, far-off Emerald City. The remarkable thing is that by this point, seeing misshapen monsters are no big deal. Sacramento is approached with the same fascination as when Sam Gamgee almost fainted from joy after seeing an elephant for the first time.
The creators behind Transient Man bill it as a graphic novel, and, for once, I’m going to say that this moniker is apt and well deserved. Once you start reading Transient Man, you start discovering the depths of the many different layers within the story. It’s never pretentious — presenting the narrative from Bob’s humble point of view presents that — but it can be pretentious if you want it to be. By the end of the comic, I had several ideas about literature, psychology, and mythology stewing around in my head like some crazy academic stew.
At the same time, it remains delightfully tongue in cheek. The creatures that interact with Bob lose their ethereal aspect once they open their mouths and talk in a matter-of-fact dialect. Magical artifacts take the form of cheap-looking trophies. Fortune-telling Native Americans mark maps with delicious pudding. It’s quirky. It’s unexpected.
It’s black comedy.
For a story about someone who may or may not be a crazy homeless man, Transient Man has a lot of heart. While there’s a chance that all might not be right in Bob’s head, he remains sincere and likable. We sort of forgive him every step of the way, even when his friends are put into peril or when his son, who has grown into a good man, gets brushed aside as he pursues his quest to save the universe. He inadvertently causes pain to the people around him, yet he remains sympathetic.
More sympathetic than those PETA activists who wanted to changed the name of the Tenderloin because it was insulting to cows, anyway.
Rating: 5 stars (out of 5)
Posted on August 13, 2011, in 5 Stars, action webcomic, adult webcomic, adventure webcomic, alternative webcomic, comedy webcomic, fantasy webcomic, The Webcomic Overlook, WCO Big Review, webcomics. Bookmark the permalink. 14 Comments.