Some years ago when I was making my weekly trip to London’s Gosh! Comics the late, great Steve Walsh (the most recent inductee into our Broken Frontier Hall of Fame) directed my attention to something new in stock. There were only a handful of copies of Paul Kirchner’s collected The Bus strips (originally published in Heavy Metal) and, knowing how much I love work that plays with the specific tools of comics he wanted to make sure I didn’t miss out. It was my introduction to Kirchner’s mind-bending practice and while the recent collection of his Dope Rider strips is very different in tone and subject matter it shares The Bus’s sense of constant reinvention of the boundaries of panel-to-panel storytelling.
The joy of The Bus was in seeing how many inventive visual ways Kirchner could find to depict the simple premise of a bus arriving at a stop to pick up passengers. What followed was a procession of one-pagers that constantly subverted the structure of the page playing with perspective, comics’ relationship with the passage of time, the metatextual and the dreamlike. It’s a masterpiece and if I had to select just one book to be stuck on a desert island with to remind me of the unique properties of the medium it would be The Bus. It’s that good (and thanks Steve!).
The original Dope Rider strips ran in the 1970s/’80s in the pages of counter-culture magazine High Times. This collection, Dope Rider: A Fistful of Delirium collects the more recent comics from Kirchner’s return to the character in 2015 on. Dope Rider is a skeletal being riding a similarly skeletal horse who chain-smokes joints and primarily travels through a fantasy Western environment, but with frequent sidesteps into metaphysical realms and cosmic dimensions. On his quest to keep pursuing that ultimate high he is joined by a supporting cast that includes sidekick Dilly the armadillo, MJ, Chief and his nemesis Wild Bill.
Each one-page strip is intricately rendered as we follow Dope Rider and company’s misadventures through their surreal terrain. Essentially the core of every offering is Kirchner finding new ways to depict the experience of being high from multiple viewpoints. A trip through a psychedelic reality turns out be Dope Rider’s absorbed perception of the carpet pattern in his chiropractor’s waiting room, for example. Dilly’s intoxication takes on a very different armadillo-like character in another strip, while elsewhere the interior of a lava lamp evolves its own lifeforms. Floating cities, other planes of consciousness, and hallucinogenic 1960s dreamworlds abound as Kirchner makes able use of bright, vibrant colours to echo the drug-induced exploits of his cast.
What elevates this from slacker stoner comedy to something far more clever is the way in which Kirchner manipulates the form. Dope Rider: A Fistful of Delirium is visually playful but there’s a profound understanding here of the storytelling opportunities available in comics that no other medium could replicate. The stoned experiences of the characters don’t just affect their own state of mind, they also warp and shape the very structure of the page. Panels weave in and out of each other or are juxtaposed on more expansive images, meta moments are liberally sprinkled throughout, and symbolism is, contradictorily, often simultaneously nuanced and direct.
There’s also a line in occasional pop cultural humour with references to reality shows, super-heroes, comic conventions and the like. But from bar brawls that use multiple, impossible perspectives to portray chaotic violence to a gunfight with Wild Bill that lasts decades it’s Kirchner’s next-level imagination that is the ultimate draw. Dope Rider: A Fistful of Delirium is an enticing doorway into the spellbinding unreality of Paul Kirchner.
Paul Kirchner (W/A) • Tanibis, £28.99
Review by Andy Oliver