Music and comics have a long and strange history. All sorts of artists have had their own comics; while Kiss has probably the longest history, Prince, the Wu Tang Clan, and others have had their own comics, and various artists have guest starred in popular titles, from Aerosmith in Shadowman to Pat Boone in Superman's Girlfriend, Lois Lane. And some musicians have written comics, like Gerad Way's Umbrella Academy. But I'm not talking about them today. Today, I'm talking about geek singer-songwriter Jonathan Coulton's collaboration with writer Greg Pak and artist Takeshi Miyazawa, Code Monkey Save World. I'm just starting with some historical context.
I first encountered the music of Jonathan Coulton through some of my wife's friends. They started bringing up YouTube clips, and by the third or fourth song, I was hooked. His lyrics were smart and funny, and he was singing about stuff like being a programmer, the presidents of the United States, Ikea, and the Mandelbrot set. And when he started as the one man house band on NPR's Ask Me Another, well, you add NPR to that other geekery, and this was a guy who was right up my alley. And I was vaguely aware that he had a Kickstarter for a comics project, but I wasn't doing the whole Kickstarter thing at the time. More the fool me.
Flash forward to New York Comic Con this past year, and I'm talking to Greg Pak, a tremendously nice guy by the way, whose run on Incredible Hulks I had just written up. Among the books he had for sale, I saw Code Monkey Save World, and I remembered that Kickstarter. And you toss in a a writer whose work I love with a musician whose songs I love, and it became a must buy. Greg signed my copy, and I was off. I read it shortly thereafter, loved it, and knew I was going to write it up, but was waiting for the right time. That time is today, and you'll find out why a little later.
Code Monkey Save World follows the misadventures of Charles, a computer programmer for SCM Industries who happens to be, well, an actual monkey. The graphic novel follows Charles as he goes from his humdrum, boring day-to-day life into a wild adventure involving supervillains, beautiful women, the fate of the world, and curling.
After his office is attacked by robots and their armored female leader, and all his coworkers are kidnapped by the robots to serve on mines on the asteroid Chiron Beta Prime, Charles finds out that his company is actually owned by Skullcrusher, a supervillain whose main methods involve corporate bureaucracy and patent lawsuits, and whose goal is to get the attention of Laura, the Robot Queen, who he had a crush on when they were in school together. Charles is willing to help the Skullcrusher in his attempts to thwart Laura's plans (because if you're a pair of supervillains, you can't just send flowers. Thwarting is courting) because one of the people kidnapped was Matilde, the receptionist who Charles has a crush on.
One of the things I really enjoyed about the book is the Matilde doesn't need Charles to save her; as a matter of fact, every attempt to do so just makes things worse. Matilde happens to be former Staff Sergeant Matilde Sanchez, and she does way better on her own. And Laura is a way better supervillain than Skullcrusher. Pak presents his female leads as far more competent than his bumbling male leads; Matilde is no damsel in distress and Laura could have probably taken over the world with little problems except for that classic bumbling interference from Shullcrusher and Charles.
As the story progresses, the cast grows with even more bizarre characters. When Skullcrusher decides to take the fight to Laura, he calls in the other members of Villainy Affiliated, LLC. These supervillains include a giant squid, aan animated, one-eyed, psychic creepy doll named Creepy Doll, and Zombie Bob, who's an office worker turned zombie. They're frankly all more evil than Skullcrusher too, and once again Charles is in over his head. Soon a government agent, code-named B-12 and a curler named Skip Jorgenson are also on their way to stop Laura. It all comes together with a team up of all our leads to stop Zombie Bob's hordes from overtaking the world to determine who will rule the world after the averted zombie apocalypse. And in the end, Charles makes a choice about his life. He grows as a character over the course of the book, and by the end isn't the same code monkey he was at the beginning.
Yes, that's a lot of plot for the equivalent of four single comics. But that's part of the fun. It's this constant stream of crazy jokes, big plot, and fun character beats. Pak is a writer who has always had a strong sense of character, and even though a lot of these characters start out very broadly drawn, which makes sense as most have their origins in 2-4 minute long songs, he spends time with each to let you understand their motivations. Well, everyone except Zombie Bob and Creepy Doll. They're pretty much just evil.
Artist Takeshi Miyazawa (best known for his work on Runaways with Brian Vaughan and co-creating Amadeus Cho with Greg Pak) goes a long way helping establish character, as his style, with its manga influences, gives a lot of big, wild expressions that carry a lot of weight. His designs for all the characters, from Charles's put upon look at the beginning to his more confident one by the end, to Laura's armor and robots, to the especially disturbing punkey (read the book, trust me) are original and really eye catching.
At the back of the book, you'll find some making of material, and a series of short strips by various other creators inspired by other Couton songs. A couple of these include Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey of Action Philosophers fame do a more historically accurate take on former baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis and Pak teaming with Faith Erin Hicks for "Mister Fancy Pants." It's a nice little bonus gallery to compliment the main story.
If you've never heard a single Jonathan Coulton song but this sounds like something you'd want to check out, that's perfectly ok, as it's not like you need to know the songs to get what's going on, but it sure does add a level of depth as the characters from various songs wind up together, and you pick up all the other inside jokes. It's also nice that the jokes fly so fast and furious, and serve the plot so well, but it doesn't take time to stop and wink at the camera every time one happens. If it did, all you'd see was a lot of winking.
I picked this book for this week's recommendation because Coulton, Pak, and Miyazawa recently completed a Kickstarter for a second book, a picture book based on Coulton's song The Princess Who Saved Herself, about a princess who stops an evil queen with the power of friendship and rock n' roll. I contributed and just got my digital copy, and it's wonderful. The print copies are due in a couple months, but if you liked this review and are curious about Code Money Save World or Princess Who Saved Herself, you can now pre-order either book here. So seriously, go to Spotify or your favorite music streaming service, check out some Jonathan Coulton, and then check out the books. They're all gonna bring a smile to your face. Especially if you love monkeys. And who doesn't, really?