Graphic Novel Review: The Puma Blues: The Complete Saga
The Breakdown: The Puma Blues – an environmental sci-fi that rocked the indie comics scene of the 80s has been collected and completed for the first time. From the minds of prolific Ninja Turtles author, Steve Murphy, and famed Sandman artist, Michael Zulli.
Elevator Pitch: Transmetropolitan meets Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep, liberally dipped in the grittier side of the 1980s and paired with John Audubon-style nature art.
The Verdict: The Puma Blues is the one of the best indie comics you’ve probably never heard of. But you know who has? Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Peter Laird, and Dave Sim, all of whom have been quoted singing the praises of Puma. That should be enough information to make you order a dozen copies immediately. The book is bleak, strange, a bit dated, and at times about as subtle as a kick to the groin from a Dead Kennedys fan, but undeniably earnest and disturbingly prescient. It’s not hard to see why so many prominent names in comics are big fans. Puma is must-have piece for lovers of obscure pop-culture, artsier comics, and anyone with a streak of punk rock in their soul.
When the book first debuted in 1986, it gazed 14 years ahead to the much-hyped turn of the century. Like many pieces of dystopian fiction, the world it depicts is ours with the negative turned up and the positive turned down: the environment has declined, the divides between economic classes have grown, and it’s all humanity’s fault. In 1995, during an attempted kidnapping of the President by a white supremacist group, a nuclear bomb was detonated in New York City – causing untold devastation that is still being felt at the book’s start. For all its sensationalism, almost 30 years later, Murphy and Zulli’s future has an eerie ring of familiarity.
The story centers around Gavia Immer, an agent of the US government, stationed at a cabin in rural Massachusetts. Immer is tasked with monitoring the nearby reservoir, as well as dealing with wildlife mutated by lingering radiation from the NYC bomb. The first example we encounter of these “biomutes” are the series’ iconic flying manta rays. Gavia is alone, but has a collection of VHS tapes to pass the time; most are of his father who was an experimental filmmaker. Through Gavia we learn about the state of the world, and The Puma Blues is as much a story about him and his internal journey as it is about the Earth he inhabits. The latter half of the book takes on a much more abstract narrative that will feel familiar to fans of Cerebus, a comic that I’ll frequently refer to when discussing Puma for reasons I’ll get into later.
If the name of writer Stephen Murphy does or doesn’t ring a bell for you, you might be surprised to find out why: he’s half of the creative team (along with Ryan Brown) that helmed the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Adventures series published by Archie in the early 90s. Under the pen name, Dean Clarrain, Murphy steered the all-ages series from direct adaptations of the ’89 cartoon into the epic, socially-aware book it became famous as. (That’s a story of its own, check out Nerdy Show‘s extensive interview with him for more.) Artist Michael Zulli provides another surprise: The Puma Blues was the first comic book he worked on; a fact that is very hard to believe after even one look at his pages. His photo-realistic depictions of wildlife are gorgeous, his panels are filled to the brim with detail; and he handles the more psychedelic, stream-of-consciousness, or just plain strange sequences of the book with expert skill. Zulli would go on to provide art for many Vertigo projects including Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, where I first (unknowingly) encountered and enjoyed his work.
If I had to choose one adjective to describe both the art and story of Puma, it would be “complex”. Zulli’s panels are packed with lines without ever feeling cluttered or impenetrable. Some pages are filled with more words than images, and the latter half of the book (including the series’ long-awaited conclusion, new to this collection) deconstructs itself to Cerebus-like levels of experimental writing and artwork – perhaps even beyond. The plot lines are so intricately woven and carefully structured to parallel each other that describing them would require a longer review than anyone would care to read. Instead, I’ll tell you the other story that makes Puma such a fascinating work in the history of comics – which also happens to be the reason it had been tragically lost to relative obscurity until now.
The Puma Blues was initially published by artist’s-rights champion and Cerebus creator, Dave Sim. In 1987, Cerebus was already a hit and Puma was a rising star. Both stood as examples of how comics could be successful without relying on big-name publishers. More difficult, however, was getting away from Diamond Comics Distributors. Diamond is a tangent for another time, but for now the important thing to know is that without Diamond, getting books onto shelves is an uphill battle for publishers (and remains so to this day). Sim cut around Diamond and was making a killing selling the collected volume of Cerebus‘s High Society story line through direct mail-order exclusively. This angered the great and powerful Diamond and in a bizarre attempt to get back at Sim, Diamond instead chose to pick on poor Puma, refusing to carry it if Sim would not distribute all of his company’s books through them. The rest of the story is history: neither side was willing to back down, and the controversy led to the creation of the Bill of Rights for Comics Creators which set new precedents in the industry. The unfortunate side effect was that Puma lost steam and came to a tragically premature end, just shy of the series’ planned finale. Though it maintained a cult following, Puma has rarely been reprinted and seemed doomed to be an obscure footnote in the history of comic books – until now.
The Details: Thanks to Dover Graphic Novels, The Puma Blues along with many other amazing, yet long out-of-print series are getting the appreciation they deserve. The Puma Blues: The Complete Saga is a beautiful hardcover edition including lengthy bookends from Dave Sim and Alan Moore-era Swamp Thing artist Stephen Bissette, a 4-page Puma Blues story by Moore himself, and best of all, a new 40-page ending by Murphy and Zulli. The introduction and afterword tell the behind-the-scenes story of Puma better and in far greater detail than I managed above, and the story by Moore is as good as one should expect from the Arch Mage of Comic Books. The Complete Saga‘s binding is class act too; with a stylized puma and manta ray stamped into the hardcover, cloaked in a dust jacket with all-new Zulli art. This edition feels like The Puma Blues is, for the first time, being presented with the respect it deserves.
Whether it’s the gorgeous artwork, the wild and emotional writing, the extra material, or the history it both contains and represents, it’s easy to find reasons to recommend The Puma Blues. If any of this sounds even a little interesting to you, I strongly suggest you take a closer look for yourself.
The Puma Blues: The Complete Saga releases this week. Pick up your copy on Amazon or your local comic shop.