Colin Panetta’s DEAD MAN HOLIDAY tells the story of Thad Planck, a low-level security guard who checks out abandoned buildings in a flooded borough called Little Atlantis. During one of his routine checks he comes across a skeleton wearing rabbit pajamas, the strangeness of which pales in comparison to the sewage golem in issue 2. And that’s not even close to the most interesting part of the book, because DEAD MAN HOLIDAY is a near-future slipstream story that reads like David Lynch directing Franz Kafka’s script for a FOLLOWING remake.
The world of DEAD MAN HOLIDAY is very similar to our own. Thaddeus Nathaniel Planck does have access to some slightly more advanced technology, and there’s clearly been some sort of disaster which has destroyed a portion of this unnamed metropolis. But the scenes set in the more upscale/untouched parts of town are grounded in the Now. The book is collection of the three-issue series that Panetta self-published between 2008 and 2009, and Panetta included the introductory letters from those issues here. In those letters he talks about wanting to bring back “personal” genre fiction, though he does specify that he’s not suggesting that stuff like THE METABARONS is a true story, just that there was a time when cartoonists would use sci-fi or fantasy as a vehicle for something more personal/”true” and he’d like to contribute to bringing that back. And I think DEAD MAN HOLIDAY is a pretty solid attempt. Thad deals with how to approach a woman on the street, a crappy job, being poor—all things that real people have to deal with. There’s a “lived that” quality to Thad, and his crappy apartment, job, life, like Panetta was detailing his own situation. But there are also ray guns and bombed-out future cities and semi-sentient thinking machines. But even the sci-fi elements aren’t that far-flung; everything feels like stuff that’s only a couple years away.
Panetta does a good job of blending these two long-thought-disparate modes, so that neither one seems out of place when they rub up against each other. And this comes out of Panetta’s willingness to experiment with the narrative and his art. Produced a few years earlier than LOGJAM, Panetta’s rendering is a lot more angular; it’s rougher—not bad, but there is a clear evolution and progression. The quality is there—his page layouts are sharp and confident, with pacing better than a lot of mainstream/revered artists—but there’s also a very obvious experimentation, a clear attempt at figuring stuff out—an almost artistic restlessness. It’s better than a lot of other cartoonists’ early work, and the imagery manages to not come off as senseless. But Panetta’s lack of experience does show. That’s not to say it shows in the quality, just that the book has a rougher aesthetic than his later work and he’s clearly trying out new things. Not bad qualities, mind, simply qualities. The quality is there, it’s just a little grainier than his later work.
The actual narrative of the book, though, belays a much more fully-formed and self-assured creator. Panetta explains in an interview, which is also included in the book, that he doesn’t like exposition. As such, a lot of DEAD MAN’s story is communicated through action, mood, facial expressions. In the same interview, Panetta explains that the series was originally numbered -3, -2,-1, with big things supposed to happen in #0. The book ends in a very strange place, but Panetta’s plans for future issues tell me that it’s not a pointless end. Without spoiling anything (which is nearly impossible to do with something like this), the book ends in place that, on the surface, appears to be an “it was all a dream” ending. But there’s more to it than that. In fact, it can be read in three ways:
The first is the obvious “it was all a dream” ending. Thad appears to die and wake up on a desert island with a woman he saw on the street earlier in the book; he’s unsure if she’s real or not. This is the most simplistic reading of the ending, but it’s the ending we’re culturally indoctrinated to expect. It’s become such a clichéd finale that we’re inclined believe it, even if the ending only has the patina of the cliché. In the backmatter interview Panetta explains that he got the title from combining Oingo Boingo’s DEAD MAN’S PARTY and the film DEATH TAKES A HOLIDAY, which makes his choice of title appear casual. And I can’t speak to how consciously he was of the title or his incorporation of it, but the title creates an expectation of something. This first reading of the ending plays into that expectation on a literal level: Thad appears to die and wake up on holiday: a dead man holiday.
The second reading is the converse of the first, but it also plays into the title on a literal level. The second reading is that of Thad dying and waking up on the island. But in this reading he is waking up from holiday: a dead man’s holiday.
The third reading, though, is more complicated. It’s dependent on an AWAKE-type/slipstream Allegory of the Cave/Brain-in-vat mashup scenario in which Thad exists in two equally-real objective realities simultaneously. It’s the only reading that most fully explains Thad’s confusion when he wakes up as well as fits into an unfinished structure within which Thad waking up isn’t an ending at all. This is the most comprehensive explanation for the ending, and the only one that allows for a continuing story, which is what DEAD MAN HOLIDAY had originally been intended to be.
The book is billed as “haunted sci-fi,” and it does an excellent job of, well, not scaring, per se, but certainly unnerving. It has elements that disturb, similar to Lynch’s ERASERHEAD. And clearly, there’s a lot of depth to this book. It’s not a pap-pap “nothing happens” alt-comic. And the fact that Thad’s story may never actually be concluded is a real shame. Panetta utilizes some rich, complex, and borderline surrealist imagery in the telling, but it always feels purposeful. DEAD MAN HOLIDAY gets weird, but that weirdness doesn’t ever feel gratuitous. And as the story develops you can see Panetta coming into himself not only as a writer, but also as a more comfortable and experienced artist.
DEAD MAN HOLIDAY, as well some of Panetta’s other, equally as bizarre/funny/awesome, work is available now from Mysterious Transmissions.
In addition to the comic expertise he brings to This Is Infamous, Shea Hennum worked for one of the oldest comic store chains in the U.S. (Lone Star Comics/MyComicShop.com). His store was bought by Collected: Your Pop-Culture Headquarters, and he works for them now. He reads a disgusting amount of comics and writes fiction, which can be found at a number of places online and in print.
Dec 17, 2013 0