A few months back, I stumbled across a bundle of all eight issues of "Dharma Punks" on sale at my local comic shop for a measly NZ$20. How could I even hope to resist? I just spent fifteen times that amount on eBay for an advance purchase of a set of the six different variant covers of Ultimate Spider-Man #166.
And now, a New Zealand classic was staring me in the face for a the price of a movie plus one small popcorn.
Some background. Dharma Punks (2001-2003) is an eight issue series, the seminal work of writer Ant Sang. Shortly after finishing Dharma Punks, Sang hit the big time, becoming the artist for New Zealand's first prime time TV cartoon series, Bro' Town.
Dharma Punks is considered a great New Zealand epic, a title which it probably deserves. I haven't done the page count, but it's probably longer than that other Antipodean classic, Dylan Horrocks' Hicksville. But size isn't everything. Sure, Sang has demonstrated that he possesses great perseverance, and is capable of handling sustained concepts. But what does Dharma Punks actually do with its 300-odd pages? Why, it tells a story of course!
Specifically it tells the story of two days in the life of an Anarchist Asian Buddhist Nihilist Amateur Punk Guitar-Playing Terrorist named Chopstick.
Chopstick is a bit of a lost soul, for reasons which eventually become clear. He and his fellow band member Tracy become involved in a plot to set off a bomb during the grand opening of the fast food chain "Bobo's". Chopsticks is ready to abandon any hope of finding meaning in the world, until he encounters "Mewt" - a mute girl who appears to be on the brink of suicide.
As the last few hours before zero hour tick away, Chopstick and his friends become the target of the local skinheads, as well as attracting the ire of Jugga, the brutal organizer of the Bobo's attack.
While the plot is solid, and well-managed, the real strength of the story is the strong character development. This along with the well-embedded abstract moments of philosophy makes Dharma Punks undoubtedly a great story. In fact, I would go so far as to say it contains the seeds of a masterpiece.
Unfortunately, I struggled with one specific, important aspect of the series. Frankly, I couldn't tell the characters apart, for a few reasons. Firstly, Chopstick's friends and co-conspirators number around ten, and they're all introduced within the first couple of issues. I think that's quite a lot for a story this size. Then there's the skinheads, and various other minor characters, some of whom are brought in merely for a page or two to add atmosphere, leaving me wondering if I needed to keep track of them or not.
Secondly, the story jumps backwards and forwards in time. Most of the story takes place on the two nights I mentioned, but there are scenes set a year or two earlier, and other scenes set a year later on, and looking backwards. I have no problem with that technique at all, except that Chopstick changes appearance between the three different settings, and it took me a while to realize that he was the same character in all three eras.
Thirdly, the characters don't use each other's names very often. I found that I frequently had to re-read several sections of the comic in order to figure each character's name. Without a label to carry around in my head, I struggled even more to figure out who was who...
...which brings me to the final part of the problem. I really struggled to visually separate some characters. Leather jackets and facial jewelery abound, and I truly had difficulty identifying clear visual clues to allow me to separate one from another.
I feel kind of silly confessing to all this. Ant Sang is clearly an excellent artist. His creative use of layout, camera angles, contrast and transitions is all top-rate. Which is why I was so frustrated to find myself confused about who-was-who. It seemed so unnecessary. A few more names here and there, a couple more obvious distinguishing features...
Mind you, having come to the end and working back through the story now, everything seems much clearer in hindsight. And there's nothing wrong with a mystery in exposition. Under the Volcano is an excellent example of how not everything needs to be explained immediately, if ever.
But unintended confusion about basic details like character identity is a different matter, and so while I would happily call this a great story (one which I intend to re-read with even more enjoyment), I think it is perhaps just on the wrong side of "masterpiece".
Damn close, though.