Saturday, September 03, 2005

Le roi est mort, vive Le Roi!

The King by Rich Koslowski (Top Shelf Productions, $19.95) is an interesting graphic novel, which seems to have flown under the radar in the past few months, probably because it doesn't have a powerful marketing machine behind it. Of course, maybe it is on the radar, and I am not. Whatever.

Why The King is so interesting is because it takes something crass - the death of Elvis and the ridiculousness surrounding the "sightings" of him since 1977 - and examines it and elevates it to something profound. Koslowski wants to look at religion and how it changes people and what exactly we are worshipping when we worship, and although that doesn't necessarily sound like something you can do in the context of an Elvis story, Koslowski pulls it off without beating us over the head with it.

The story is simple. Paul Erfurt, a freelance reporter, shows up in Las Vegas on the trail of a very popular Elvis impersonator who claims he's the real deal. Erfurt is working for Time magazine, but we soon learn that the reason "Elvis" wanted him to interview him (and no one else) is because Paul used to write Elvis sighting stories for tabloids, and this new Elvis respects him for that. Through a series of interviews, Paul learns that Elvis has been surrounding himself with people he has "saved," and that when he died in 1977, it was only so that he could properly become a god - specifically, the god of song. Paul's articles only fed the belief in him as a god, which made him strong. The reason he returned is because people were starting to forget him, and he needed to return so that people would believe again. Paul, of course, doesn't believe him, and he starts tracking down who exactly this Elvis is. Things start to go poorly, of course, because every Messiah must have a Judas, and it's just a question of whether Paul (note his name, by the way) will be Elvis's.

The story moves along nicely, but it's what Koslowski says about the characters that make this a superior work. Each character is fleshed out nicely, even the minor ones, and Erfurt and Elvis, obviously, are the most interesting. Erfurt is someone who is looking for an answer to the question "Who am I?" while Elvis is a bit of an enigma, despite the fact that he is the focus of the book. Koslowski nicely parallels Elvis with Jesus, in that each character invests Elvis with the character traits that he or she wants to see, so that Elvis, instead of having a personality, reflects the traits of whomever he is discoursing with. Each person sees what they want in Elvis, including Erfurt, who doesn't know he is looking for redemption but finds it anyway - but not in the way you might necessarily think.

Koslowski wants to examine religion and what makes people worship. Why does the phenomenon of Elvis continue to fascinate us? Do we worship him? What can this worship offer us? Is it a truer religion than that of Christianity or whatever else we think of as "religion"? If so, why? Of course, a church grows up around Elvis, and it becomes a sensation. Koslowski wants us to ask if a religion that is more tangible is more real than an ethereal one, one that is rooted in the past. Obviously, there is a link between the Elvis phenomenon and the revivalist section of fundamentalist Christianity, and Koslowski wants us to wonder if perhaps a god who is among us is a better deity than one that remains aloof. The people can touch Elvis and talk to him, and he can offer them something that Jesus, perhaps, cannot. In this materialistic world, this Elvis offers materialism tinged with spirituality. Koslowski suggests that this is the kind of religion we like. Maybe it is.

There is a lot in this book that is thought-provoking. It's the kind of book that appears simplistic, just a man's quest for the truth about Elvis, but instead leads us into murky waters about what makes us religious and why we feel the need to fill a void in our lives. Paul does not appear to be the kind of man who thinks he needs to fill the void, and he regards people who cannot deal with life by themselves as inferior. Obviously, he is struggling with a loss, but he can't accept that a mystery man who may or may not be Elvis could possibly help him. Paul's journey (on the road to Damascus?) is the crux of the book, and it's a fascinating one.

The King is 20 dollars, but it's well worth it. It's a book about something that is prevalent in our society but is often unexamined in comic books. Check it out.

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