David Rees    

  Behind the Scenes...

Nothing much happens, plotwise, in "My New Fighting Technique is Unstoppable." Karate fighters argue about who has the most dangerous technique. They fear Karate Snoopy, who is unbeatable. One of the fighters, initially the figment of another's imagination, turns into a circulatory system. Ambulances take many fighters to the hospital. Two fingerprints on a fighter's hand try to fight each other. Another fighter stands around with his foot in the air, waiting for opponents to walk into it.

The whole book is built around a limited set of clip art images, many of which serve as multiple characters -- sometimes the angry-looking guy in profile is a main protagonist, hell-bent on battling the Circulatory System; other times he's just a member of a sort of foul-mouthed Greek chorus. It's hard to keep track of who's who. I like this ambiguity. The fondness I feel for the characters is more a fondness for their collective anxiety and aggression than for any particular individual.

Some characters are represented exclusively by unique clip art images. Karate Snoopy, the Circulatory System, and the ambulance drivers are based around visually distinctive clip art I came across during my temp job working at a university community health department. I downloaded the circulatory system and ambulance images while putting together a public health-related brochure. I found them very appealing, so I used them in the comic. The idea of a karate temple being a site of such violence that ambulances are constantly carting away fighters is very funny, yet the idea only came to me after I downloaded the ambulance clip art.

The ambiguity of character extends to the overarching "story." Many of the strips are visually identical with only the dialogue changed. Some of the strips deal with the same situation in different ways. There aren't any page numbers. This book is ideally read in bursts, not start to finish. At some point the reader should have read enough of the book to recognize certain pages, but be unsure whether they are pages he or she has read before. The reader enters a mood of happy confusion and stasis, which is kind of like my professional life.

Why doesn't the book have a clear story? I am not very good at writing stories with plots. I think it's because I don't find stories as interesting as characters. My childhood friends and I never got around to playing out narratives with our Star Wars figures. We spent long afternoons in the preliminary activity of "picking" -- choosing which figures we wanted on our side, in anticipation of a narrative or battle. We would dump our figures on the floor and rotate, picking out our characters, giving them names and attributes. We usually lost interest in the game once it was time to start playing out a story, so we'd just dump the figures back in a pile and start picking again. The point at which a character has his or her attributes worked out is very exciting. The possibilities are endless, so long as nothing actually happens to him or her. Again, this is kind of like my life. I hate committing to anything because it cuts off other options. That's why I am 29 and I don't have a career. I need to change this aspect of my life!

Temp jobs are the ideal creative environment for me: I usually have few serious responsibilities, but enough busy work so that any time spent making comics on the sly feels like a great feat of creative rebellion. All the means of artistic production -- computer, internet clip art, laser printer, photocopier -- are within reach. I have to work quickly, printing comics as soon as I make them, in case someone else has to use the laser printer. The more limited the tools and resources, the more I have to strain my imagination to create amusing situations, and usually, the funnier the final product is.

At the temp job where I made "My New Fighting Technique is Unstoppable," I spent a lot of time perusing rap music websites. The limitless amount of new singles by new rappers is exhilarating. One of my favorite things about rap music is that many performers take on new identities while they're on the mic. Rappers rarely perform under their given name. Seeing a long list of new songs by new rappers is like seeing a long cast of characters for an exciting new play, without actually having to sit through the play. I spent more time reading rap reviews than listening to the songs.

Kool Keith is a great rapper. He has released albums under many different personalities. In cataloging esoterica about his multiple personalities, Kool Keith reminds me of the days in elementary school when my friend and I would fill sheets of paper with data about scores of imaginary characters: names, pictures of their faces, and major characteristics. We never went beyond these massive lists of characters. We never made up stories about them.

This is the data for one of Kool Keith's personalities:

"Mr. Gerbick; Age: 208; Birthplace: Jupiter; Likes: fishing, swimming; Dislikes: wolfmen, flossing; Quote: 'Skin like an alligator, carrying a dead walrus.'"

Another element of rap music that comes across in my book is the obsession with fighting, and the importance of technique. Most freestyle battle rhymes are explicitly about language. Growing up I loved hearing so many people rapping about rapping -- making songs about, while exhibiting, cleverness with language. Why is this genre so fascinating to me? It's almost like I don't want language to get beyond itself and actually talk about anything in the world -- I like keeping it wrapped up in itself. I think this is why I studied philosophy in college and got really into Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Staten Island's Wu-Tang Clan is a musical collective that appropriates the language and sound effects of martial arts movies into their lyrics and their beats. They exploit the analogy between fighting technique and lyrical technique very effectively. Some astute readers have picked up the Wu-Tang's influence on my book.

The greatest single influence on "My New Fighting Technique is Unstoppable," however, is Davey D's 1998 "KRS-One Will End Your Career", an analysis of then up-and-coming rapper Canibus's chances against the fabled Chris Parker, aka KRS-One. Canibus had made a name for himself as an excellent battle rhymer, one who took on popular favorite LL Cool J in one of the truly high-profile MC feuds to play big on commercial radio. Davey D's essay is filled with words of caution for the upstart Canibus, and confirms KRS-One's reputation as one of the greatest battle rhymers of all time:

"(KRS-One) pointed out that he was like a martial arts master and that he is always prepared. He noted that when he released "The Return of the Boom Bap' album in '94 that he put all rappers on notice. He said that anyone who came out after '94 were subject to having their careers end at any given moment. KRS claimed that when he hears a new artist come on the scene that he immediately writes a rhyme that will totally dismantle him and his career. He keeps those rhymes in the back of his head just in case he has to take some kid out..."

I think the character of Karate Snoopy in "My New Fighting Technique is Unstoppable" is based in part on KRS-One. Karate Snoopy seems capable of ending careers of other fighters "at any given moment." He seems very sure of himself, as do most good rappers.

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