Fascinating book, this. It combines the textural, noise-based visual aesthetic of caves and monsters and melty stuff that you may have seen from many of Chris Cilla’s fellow contributors to the Paper Rodeo and Kramers Ergot anthologies with the down’n’out beer-swillin’ shit-talkin’ big-schnozzed characters of ’90s altcomix (big noses are to alternative what big feet were to the underground), so right off the top it’s doing something unexpected. And in the same way that the art is both densely intense and breezily funny, the story somehow coheres from jokey banter, grand-guignol monster attacks, and surreal non sequitur splash pages into an utterly convincing world. The Heavy Hand is basically the tale of Alvin Crabshack, somewhat feckless young guy who picks up stakes and moves from the city to a remote research site in hopes of bluffing his way into the employ of a scientist he admires, at which point he is drawn into a crescendoing series of bizarre science-fictional events — and it works great on both sides of that descriptive sentence’s comma.
Regarding the first half, Cilla’s command of the details of a young life not particularly well lived is substantial. Just for example, look at the way he differentiates between the two women Alvin is (duplicituously) dating by how he dresses both their rooms and themselves — the first has a neat haircut and sits in bed reading one book among many well-ordered shelves, candles and wine glasses strewn here and there; the second we meet as she cracks open a beer and picks a cassette tape off a table sporting a used ashtray and half-eaten dishes, all while bare-ass naked — while giving both sequences a sordid, stiff-nippled sexiness, a squalid heat that comes from lying to someone you know intimately and resent at least as much as you enjoy.
Of course, the second woman has a duck’s beak instead of a nose, which leads us to the strangeness. Obviously this wouldn’t be the first time an alternative comic featured unexplained anthropomorphism in an otherwise realistic setting, so I didn’t pay it much attention — nor the weird, wordless opening sequence in which some kind of ghostly scientist fixes both a machine and a cup of coffee by pissing all over them. But as Alvin’s journey progresses, we come to learn that not only is he basically lying his way into working with his academic idol, but the work he’ll be doing is considerably more odd and dangerous than the book’s opening makes it sound. Rival grant-sponsored teams plumb a system of caverns and underground rivers for giant eggs that contain dead reptiles, while huge and deadly one-eyed protoplasmic creatures devour their pack donkeys…which in turn hearkens back to tall tale about a curse on a nearby town that led to its affliction with these strange animals…which we suddenly realize relates to the odd interstitial splashes and spreads depicting a mustachioed man and giant spiders and so on…which we eventually learn aren’t the non-narrative interruptions they appear to be but an integral part of the story at hand…which culminates in a tour-de-force party sequence where the romantic entanglements and awkward interpersonal interactions of the beginning of the book come back into play. These competing, seemingly clashing narrative and visual threads slowly enmesh and intertwine so organically that you hardly notice, until suddenly you realize they’ve sewn up a structure so sturdy you could spend hours climbing around inside it.
My only complaint is that you don’t get that kind of time. As fun as that party scene is — I really love the way all of the dialogue is disconnected, with never more than two word balloons actually commenting on one another; it’s a great way to convey feeling out of place in an inebriated crowd — it eats up a huge amount of space relative to the densely plotted rest of the book, and rockets everything to its explosive conclusion way too fast. The Lynchian epilogue is as engrossing as anything else in the book, but it made me pine for a nonexistent much longer version, one that didn’t cut itself off right when it became apparent how rich and compelling it was. But since so much of the plot is driven by an anecdote about an inventor whose life basically had to blow up before he could do what would make him rich for the rest of his life, it’s hard for me to get too upset that the book itself follows suit. Wanting more is surely a sign that this smart, biting work of literary science-fiction comics did something right.