Charging Headlong Toward The Singularity: Ryan Carey Reviews WILLIAM SOFTKEY & THE PURPLE SPIDER By CF

We live in a fractured and contentious time, one where (without wishing to sound too dramatic) it often feels as though nothing less than objective reality itself would seem to be up for grabs, the ultimate prize commodity to be wrested away from the clutches of one’s philosophical opponents, but even still — there are some questions which will always have but one answer. Two plus two can only equal four. Today can only be followed by tomorrow. And a comic about a sewer-dwelling naked super-human tasked with defeating a five-million-pound arachnid who has set up shop in the world’s largest secret subterranean library — one that’s owned by a guy with three faces who’s attended by a gaggle (it might be five, but then again it might be six) identical sisters who recreationally perform dangerous space-time experiments — can only come from the mind and hand of CF.

Yup, the most-active alumnus of Providence’s legendary Fort Thunder collective is back with his second book in as many years from Anthology Editions, following on from 2019’s Pierrot Alterations, and while William Softkey & The Purple Spider may have a more conventional structure both narratively and physically than its predecessor, the very concept of convention is nevertheless pretty much out the window here — as anyone who’s followed CF’s ever-expanding body of work would, frankly, expect. And yet expectations are dispensed with just as easily as convention here, so perhaps we’d be well-served to just jettison both terms from our vocabulary when discussing this book. It’s not like we’ll really be needing them, anyway.

Conveniently, though, CF begins these proceedings with an illustrated gallery of his dramatis personae, but by all means: don’t let this disabuse you of the notion that you’re going to be thrown in at the deep end from the outset here — this is, after all, a cartoonist who’s never been much for hand-holding, thankfully, and while the breakneck pace of the “idea monsoon” he hits readers with can be a daunting thing to keep up with at times, it’s always worth the effort. What stands out about this latest hermetically-sealed world he’s created, though, is that he punctuates the conceptual deluge with relaxed, even languid, interstices wherein he seems to relish the opportunity to casually unfurl the contents of his imagination not so much at the expense of the book’s flow, but in a manner that (counter-intuitive as it no double sounds) runs parallel with it.

Consider: when the aforementioned Gigglewindow sisters drop by to pick up our erstwhile hero and take him to meet their boss, they first transport him by helicopter, then switch over to what I’ll call, for lack of a better term, their “magical mystery spaceship,” and then silently whisk over arid desert landscapes for a good long while before reaching their destination. The entire sequence takes up nine pages of a 79-page book and is followed by three pages that feature all of them sliding down a pole. Still, once all that’s said and done, we’re right back into the thick of it and, in true dream-logic fashion, it seems as though the preceding events didn’t take anywhere near as long as they quite obviously did.

And I think “dream” is the key word to focus on there: as with Pierrot Alterations, this is a book that seems to flow directly from the id and is laden with symbols and metaphors that only make “sense” when the rational, waking world is somewhere firmly in your rear-view mirror. Questions such as why the characters communicate through fruit, why interlopers in the library are dealt with by means of mobile execution vans, why CF chooses to draw special attention to the color of the spider when everything and everyone in the book is as purple as it is, and why the sisters are so hell-bent on collapsing all matter (within a certain radius, at any rate) into one super-dense point/event are necessarily going to have entirely individual meanings — if any — for each reader. And the genius (a term I never invoke lightly) thing with this kind of “channeled” narrative isn’t so much that there’s no “right” or “wrong” way to interpret anything that you’re presented with, there’s literally no “right” or “wrong” way to read it in the first place. In fact, I daresay you may just as well enjoy this even if you think it’s all just “far-out shit” that some guy came up with when he was high as hell — in fact, it may not be a stretch at all to say that’s the healthiest and most flexible way to approach the whole thing as a reader! Everything is fluid in this comic, including — maybe even especially — the phenomenon of identity itself, so whatever you need to do to help yourself relax and go with the flow, if such things don’t come to you naturally, is probably advisable.

Likewise, this book’s art and lettering have very much the feel of “automatic” or “unconscious” rendering to them, even though the sheer amount of effort put into them (especially in the library sequences, as pictured above) is plain as day to see. Just as musicians labor for hours, even days, on end to recreate the sound of impromptu live “jam sessions” in the studio, so too does CF appear to have spent considerable time crafting a visual narrative that evokes the character and temperament of the unforced, subconscious mind — a kind of illustrated “dream diary” of perhaps a particularly memorable recurring dream, the significance of which he’s sharing, and subsequently wrestling with, in front of an audience. The end result is not only a comic that succeeds best when you’re willing to let go of the conscious mind and its attendant hang-ups, but also a meditation upon the very act of letting go itself — one which posits that freedom and transcendence are only achieved after allowing everything to collapse in on itself. Fear not the end of all you know and hold dear, friends — what’s waiting on the other side might just be pretty wonderful. William Softkey & The Purple Spider certainly is.

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February 2023


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