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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

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Eric Kostiuk Williams’ Condo Heartbreak Disco fluctuates between superhero parody and superhero tale set in an absurdist world that reflects but warps ours like a funhouse mirror. Reminiscent at times of Robert Crumb and Bob Burden, Williams’ style is transgressive in a familiar way, evoking a decades-long history of alternative comics. Though his immediate subject matter is the gentrification and over-development of his home city of Toronto, the plot of an ancient demonic entity constructing empty “Readymade Art Condos” in order to wipe away humanity is too playfully self-indulgent to serve as serious social critique. Instead, Williams’ primary subject is his style itself, which his characters and plot serve well.

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The opening page establishes in four wordless panels the evolution of Toronto from a sparsely constructed 19th-century-era port to a crowded futurscape of impossibly shaped buildings. Those four panels then reappear on the following page but drawn as a single object ambiguously merging with explosive clouds as the buildings transform into the letters of the title. That paradoxical shift between words that describe a fictional world and word shapes that are objects in that world is common on comic book splash pages. But for Williams, it is a defining style of his narrative in which characters and objects are both their solidly naturalistic images grounded in a fully physical world but also somehow their radically unstable drawings free to morph across the surface of the page.

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Williams’ layouts are accordingly chaotic, with broken frames, interpenetrating images, endlessly irregular panel shapes, and drawn objects that serve as frame edges for other bordering images. The self-reflexive style even infects Williams’ sound effects when a character grabs hold of the word “CRUNCH” in the process of producing it.

The morphing art features two equally anarchic characters: the ambiguously dynamic duo of Komio and the Willendorf’s Braid. Both, appropriately, are shapeshifters, capable of transforming their nominally female bodies at will. Komio’s usually high-heeled platform shoes are extensions of her actual feet which in bed appear barefoot yet toeless. Her white stocking of a body is also free of hair, ears and genitalia. Although she can bend and bulge into any set of shapes she likes, she also needlessly dons wigs and costumes, leaving her disturbingly button-round black eyes her most consistent features.

Komio’s cartoonishly feminine lips are near constants too, though they also serve the practical purpose of attracting the men she has been hired to capture and torture. For “lifetimes,” Komio performed “vengeance as public service” but now prefers payment. Though her first victim seems deserving of his fate as his apparent rape victims materialize to watch his punishment, Komio’s questionable motives foreshadow the nominal superhero plot’s turn into anti-melodrama.

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When Komio discovers that another “more than human” shapeshifting being is her antagonistic, she relishes the “real challenge.” It’s a superhero cliché as old as the Golden Age Batman and the Silver Age Spider-Man, but here Williams warps hubris into complicity. Komio soon abandons her sidekick lover Braid and literally merges with her enemy. Left alone, Braid (again, literally, she’s an enormous braid of hair coiled into human shape) attempts to aid the residents of their former neighborhood as the skyrise condos reduce them all to homeless squatters. But the struggle seems futile. How could Robin save Gotham after Batman has joined forces with Joker? The “dystopic conclusion of development for its own sake” may even describe Williams’ own aesthetic, one motivated by the pleasures of its own excesses more than any purpose outside them. In that sense then Komio’s betrayal is inevitable.

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Williams does leave readers on an ambiguously positive note though. Braid finds the exploitive Instigrammer who unwittingly led the demon to Toronto through his “geo-tagged photos” that revealed “a naively deterministic yearning for an authentic, lived urban experience.” Though he realizes now he’s “a complete piece of shit,” Braid tells him: “But maybe you don’t have to be.” Since the narrative ends on the same page, the gentle scolding seems to be directed at Williams’ own readers.

But Williams seems more engrossed in his now literally warping images. The page concludes with the opening panel of the futuristic Toronto cityscape now bending as if stretched across a curved surface. It’s an ambiguous but fitting ending to the anti-superhero tale.

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[The original version of this and my other recent comics reviews appear in the comics section of PopMatters.]

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