Real Talk: Supermarket Cash Money EditionA comic review article by: Daniel Elkin, Keith Silva
Some comics are too big, hypeworthy or insane for one reviewer to cover. Which is why we have Real Talk, an outlet for a group of reviewers to tackle a comic together and either come to a consensus or verbally arm wrestle until there's nothing left to say.
Daniel Elkin: The Big Apple, The Windy City, The City of Brotherly Love, Motor City, Sin City, The Big Easy, Stumptown, these are all recognizable nicknames for the places people live. These monikers, as is their nature, imbue each metropolis with a personality, a quirkiness, a life unto themselves. We get an odd sense of what happens in these places by the easy sobriquets we give them, and, in a way, the cities become these places through our casual naming. But what if your city's nickname was The Supermarket? What kind of life goes on in there? In Brian Wood and Kristian Donaldson's Supermarket, it's all up in the Wu-Tang. As Method Man said, "'Cash rules everything around me.''
The world of Supermarket is a world of commodities. Everything has a price including honor, self-worth, and status. Experience is commoditized, personality is weighed in the wallet, and our interactions become transactions. It's dollar, dollar bill, y'all and god help you if you aren't possessed of fat stacks.
In a world ruled by cash, though, it's the criminals who are king, and in Supermarket it's the Yakuza and the Porno Swedes who wear the crown and hold the strings. In this book, the underground economy is more powerful than the corporate entities. Although in reality, they may be one and the same as they profit and ravage at the same time.
So what do you do if you are a pubescent female 16-year-old only child of a well-to-do family in this situation? You do what teenage girls do best. You skulk and you sulk, act petulant and holier-than-thou. You condemn the society that has afforded you the comforts and the coffees, the cars and the security. Of course you do. You're a teenage girl. You're rarefied. You're entitled. You're the target market.
But what happens when it all turns upside down? What do you do when everything you took for granted and railed against is suddenly lying in a pool of blood on the expensive tile floor of your foyer. Well, you react, don't you. You break and you escape and you become who you are.
Wood has referred to this book as "a mafia book, a sci-fi joint, cyberpunk, crime, action-adventure." For me, it was as much of a wild ride as it was a tongue-in-cheek condemnation of our capitalist tendencies.
How about you, Silva?
Keith Silva: Elkin, I'm a boy from suburbs. Does that mean I know how to cry on cue? Nope. Now, the mean streets of my hometown "cow town" are far far removed from the neon sheen of the Supermarket and the manicured homogenous-ness of "'map grid sector H-453, 766'" aka "Woodland Hill Estates." Supermarket, itself, is also on the outskirts of what I've come to know as "Brian Wood's" "hood or territory, maybe "joint" is the more appropriate… hmm what's your word, yes, sobriquet.
This is Wood at his breezy best. From the hipshot pose Pella pulls on the cover of this "Cash Money Edition" of Supermarket to the ever-present cartoon plumes of smoke that trail the Yakuza toughs inside, this is, perhaps, Wood's least serious comic book. If someone wanted to read a Brian Wood "brand" book, this is not the one I would hand them. Sure, it's got those classic Wood hallmarks: herculean distaste for commodification and authority figures and a whipsmart female lead. Its non-stop go plot is slick, but not as in-depth as some of his other work. For me, what's missing is the lack of media coverage. Wood, always so good at mocking the media, turns the TV off here and leaves Pella and pals in a rarefied place where "the revolution will be not be televised." Maybe it's the next iteration of our own on-demand culture where you pay not to watch TV.
In age, stage and attitude, Pella Suzuki is a couple of towns over (literally and figuratively a suburb) from our favorite Local, Megan, and worlds away from our mutual friend Justin Giampaoli's fav DMZ denizen, Matty Ross and even further removed from Channel Zero's militant Jennies. As you point out, Elkin, Pella has the "snap-crackle-and-pop" of an entitled sixteen-year-old raised in the "'NW Commerce zone platinum.'" Is she from the same family as Megan, Matty and Jennie? Does this make her unique or an outlier?
Wood is always on the side of the usurper, the gritty grunt, the runt and in Supermarket he's on the inside, alongside the string-pullers. Maybe that's what's throwing me off. Pella slums at a 24/7 convenient store because it's convenient, because she can (or not) it doesn't matter. She does it to piss off her parents -- working a shitty afterschool job in order to piss off your parents, strange days indeed, most peculiar, mama.
The one switch-up I'm all on board with is Kristian Donaldson. Where was this coolness in iciness of the first arc of The Massive? Donaldson's art is so alive here. His colors possess a neo-Tokyo candy coating that makes the Japanimation of his cartooning sparkle with flash and flirtiness. The panel of the Yakuza lined up on the subway platform smoking cigarettes… it's… well… it's so damn cool.
The two words I keep coming back to for Supermarket are "hipshot" and "cocky." What I can't get a bead on is the soul. Where's the depth? Did you ever, at once, worry about Pella, think that maybe (oh no!) her credit would run out? Is that what makes this book such a "tongue-in-cheek" lark, its bankruptcy of danger and of risk?
So, Elkin, sell me on Supermarket? See what I did there?
Daniel: Are you all lost in the Supermarket, Silva? Are you saying you can't buy in because you can't relate? "Oh boy. How ya gonna keep 'em down on the farm once they've seen Karl Hungus? " Did Brian Wood step out of your comfort zone, where the aisles are wide and the Cocoa Puffs are strategically placed at knee level? Can you "'no longer shop happily''? "'If thou wert my fool, nuncle, I'd have thee beaten for being old before thy time. "'
Good lord, am I quoting The Clash, The Big Lebowski and King Lear in the same paragraph?
Yes. Yes I am.
It's this sort of melange and pastiche, at least for me, that makes Supermarket hum. It's like you have no idea what you are going to crash into when you fly around the next corner, but every pigeon, puddle, or poodle you encounter when you turn is somehow familiar enough, even in the strangest context, that you buy in. We are well versed in each separate trope that Wood and Donaldson use to paint this story. What we don't know is that they taste so good when mixed together.
And that, I think, is the genius of this book. Is it a great literary accomplishment for the ages? No, but what we have is a tasty dish of nouvelle cuisine, disparate ingredients sauteed in the same pan, making for a delicious blend of seasonings, a beautiful presentation, and a singularly tasty delight.
But mind you, there is a complexity to its flavor as well.
You talk about "'its bankruptcy of danger and of risk,'" Silva. Did you see the swords on those Yakuza or the silver pistols in the hand of that Porno Swedes? What about that guy's expression in Import Discs Rockola as an enormous hole is ripped through the right side of his face? There's even a car chase, for christsakes man! A CAR CHASE! How is this not danger? How is this not excitement and risk? Sure, Pella has access to comforts, but all this whizzing and slicing and "'BRAK-A-BRAK'" is so outside her suburbs that she must realign or be lost.
And it's how she reacts and how she changes and what she does with her new "cosmopolitan" self that brings the richness to the meal.
I agree, Silva, that this could well be Wood's "least serious" creator-owned book, but in that it draws attention to itself. Given the worlds Wood creates and the themes he explores in his personal work, should not one see the echoes of these in Supermaket's self-awareness? Pella makes choices throughout Supermarket. She grows through those choices until finally she is given the opportunity to transform what was heretofore her snark into real action. This is the moment. Was it all a mask to hide insecurity? Was it just an act because, well, you know, that's what teenage girls do? Or does Pella become a hero by putting into practice that which she had been preaching?
Therein, perhaps, we have our vantage point, dare I say our purchase.
Keith: "Snark into real action," now if we could pull off that kind of alchemy, my friend, the Elkins and the Silvas would eat well tonight. Truth be told, I was going contrarian, for once. I guess I'm too honest (and too pretty) to act as such a delinquent. If this is Brian Wood's Chungking Express sans The Cranberries (thank Christ!) than O.K. And, yeah, that flying eyeball did get my attention, but the car chase (ahem) stalled when it came to (again, sorry) getting my motor going. I did feel for Pella when she woke up in the bus depot -- public transportation seat cushions don't (usually) have a high thread count. So, I'll grant you, "bankrupt" was a bit harsh.
About that scene in the J-pop record shop, did you catch the "'eep!''? When the two tattooed Yakuza henchmen menace their way in -- the guy smoking the two cigarettes at once, awesome! -- Pella ducks down behind some of the wax on racks and squeaks out "eep." It's a small thing, but it made me think I was watching a Bugs Bunny cartoon, until the right side of that dude's head came apart, of course. That "eep" told me I had nothing to fear, this is (was) a cartoon, there's little risk involved.
I will give Pella props: she puts her money where her mouth is, put another way, she has her "'mind on [her] money and money on [her] mind" when she honors her parent's wishes to "spread the wealth." The literal deus ex machina is maybe one cliché over the line in this story and, for me, it caused the "Robin Hood" ending to fall flat.
What I think I really wanted from Supermarket was a bit more body -- not a stout so much, as a blond, IPA would have worked. I need more from the Porno Swedes. (Insert joke here) I never got a sense of their power and what they controlled, only that they wore micro-minis, had a preference for nickel-plated hand cannons and were mutual (dare we say, convenient) adversaries with the Yakuza.
Goddammit, Elkin! That's it! Convenience. Supermarket speaks to convenience on every level: plot, characters, setting and themes -- all of it a riff on the word "convenience" itself. Supermarket offers every comfort in a comic book storytelling: good looks, a sleek narrative and an economy of themes, words and ideas. Mix in the "street cred" that Brian Wood brings to every project and you've got yourself something above common fare.
So, is Wood saying "convenience" is a good thing? Is Supermarket comic book comfort food? Retail Therapy?
Daniel: ACK! Or should I say, Eep. By golly, Silva, you've thrown it all against the wall to see if it will stick. You're taking an angle here, one high up on the top rung of a rotting wooden ladder resting precariously against a humming washing machine on its spin cycle, one that I hadn't the nerve to even consider to climb.
And I like that about you. Risks are never convenient.
What is convenience after all? Is it the easy way out? Is it our dollar bills taking on the work load so we can lounge in our loafers, nestled in our barcaloungers and paisley sweaters, while we rub our bellys and complain about the weather? "Cash rules everything around me?" It's our access to the halls of power as much as it is a security blanket in which we wrap ourselves in tightly against the cold. And that is where Pella is, or, by the end of the book, was. Is Supermarket convenient, though? Only if you read it conveniently.
Like I was saying before, this book is full of the comforts of home. It's an easy breezy -- certainly -- a gentle wind to cool our brows from overthinking, but when you put all the comforts together in a singular package, well that gentle breeze can become a gale force wind. And it's blowing (not sucking) hard here in Supermarket, this wind. The answer, my friend, is in it.
Silva, I honestly think that Supermarket has got the soul of a Oatmeal Stout, but the appearance of a PBR, you just have to drink deep and turn your face to the wind (man, am I jumbling the metaphors like a hook handed DJ on horse tranquilizers or what). It's a slight-of-hand in which the magicians, Wood and Donaldson, show you all the shiny things and candy bars, while they are slipping your wallet out of your pants pocket and replacing your Driver's License with a thin copy of Emerson's Self-Reliance.
This ain't cartoon satire as much as it is a call to arms. What is it that we want to occupy? "I don't know. But I think I crashed the Supermarket." We all know we are getting fleeced by a power structure that does not have our self-interest at heart. Sometimes it takes a Yakuza with a sword or a Porno Swede with a handgun to finally get us to do something about it. Then it takes that conflict between convenience and goodness to be resolved in our hearts to "hit the send button" and complete the transaction.
Is that convenient? No. It's the opposite of convenience. It's Work.
Keith: Look, this is an equitable exchange of goods and services. The Wood and Donaldson brand does not disappoint. Work gets done and "it" works. Semantics aside, I don't think I'm on some protracted-metaphorical-rinse-cycle-rotten-ladder-contraption as you would want it. Supermarket may (or may not) be symbolic of the "sin of convenience" in a narratological sense; however, its setting and its themes are relatable i.e. fitting, if for no other reason than to point out what Pella and her fellow masters commerce enjoy most: "'seeing what it takes to separate people from their money.'" This is Pella's jam and Wood's thesis for Supermarket.
Pella's mantra crops up early in the story (as a good thesis should). Donaldson makes a pop art play as he divides the page into 4 rectangular panels the first and third panels show, respectively, the private school Pella attends and the convenience store where she works. The second and fourth panels place Pella in the far left-hand side of the frame in the exact same position: her left-hand props up her head while her right arm "hangs loose" over the back of a chair, she has the same look of disinterest on her face that says, "same shit different day.'
All that changes is her clothes -- a different set for a different setting. Unlike Pop Art, the store and the school have been scrubbed clean of any kind of advertising; devoid of logos and brands -- the medium is message enough. Pella's repeated image elicits a mass-produced quality, a product that awaits consumption. In the second panel, she looks as if all the "dark sarcasm in the classroom" washes over her leaving her snow white school uniform untouched. At the convenience store, Pella is seen as above all this, aware and yet distant. She deigns to dip a finger into the consumer-conscious stream, but she only does so as it suits her -- as it is, one could say, convenient. She is (and has) become such a product of her world that she has evolved beyond it and learned how to exploit its resources. Quite the capitalist, no?
Actions speak louder than coy concerns for coffee farmers. So, Elkin, you are right, when pressed, Pella responds, after all, it's in her DNA. As an outdated comedy catchphrase had it, how con-VEEN -ient! Call her a do-gooder and praise her for working towards an equitable disbursement of her inheritance, fine. You know what phrase might sum Pella up best, she's an exile, an "exile on Main Street;" a touch inconvenienced, maybe, but in a central location, within walking distance to retail shops, stores and the supermarket; an exile, with a platinum card and a savings account to drown the world.
Daniel: In parting, I draw your attention to the final words of Supermarket, "All in all, not too bad for a girl from the suburbs."
Oh, hey everyone, I just noticed what Silva said in his final paragraph above. He said, and I quote, "So, Elkin, you are right..." Cha-Ching! Dollar, dollar bill, y'all!
Daniel Elkin wishes there were more opportunities in his day to day to wear brown corduroy and hang out in lobbies. He has been known to talk animatedly about extended metaphors featuring pigs' heads on sticks over on that Twitter (@DanielElkin). He is Your Chicken Enemy.
Mr. Silva is a recent relapsed reader of comic books, loves alliteration and dies a little inside each time he can’t use an oxford comma in his reviews for Comics Bulletin. He spends most days waiting for files to render except on occasion when he can slip the bonds of editing and amble around cow barns, run alongside tractors and try not to talk while the camera is running. When not playing the fool for the three women he lives with, he reads long, inscrutable novels with swear words. He recently took single malt Scotch and would like to again, soon.