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Manhattan in the near future
In "100%" (Vertigo: 256 pp., $39.99), Paul Pope depicts a New York punctuated with bits of technological wizardry but still wholly recognizable -- a city in which characters cower in fear from what might be lurking in the shadows, fall in love, eat sushi, drink too much and watch bad performance art. ("A naked woman smashing eggs," one character observes. "What is the world coming to?") The Gotham of this graphic novel, published serially in 2002 and 2003, is nestled somewhere between its incarnations in Thomas M. Disch's beaten-down "334" and Martin Scorsese's antic nightmare "After Hours." With a palette dominated by stark black and white, "100%" would be your typical round-the-corner dystopia if everything didn't feel so weirdly alive.
Three couples, loosely linked, circulate in this grim nocturnal city of a few decades hence -- there has been some sort of catastrophic war in India, the impact of which is left tantalizingly unclear. (For good measure, the upcoming 2050 World Cup will feature humans vs. mutants.) Here they make love or art while trying to figure out the necessary trick of how to get by. The jittery Kim (white) and capable Strel (black) are friends; Strel manages dancers at a state-of-the-art club called the Catshack, which (a quote-happy Zagat's-like guide tells us) is "dead set in the center of Manhattan's 'revitalized Urbanista downtown'. . . . The food is 'robust' and 'decent,' but it's 'to be seen and seem' that the clientele shows up." Strel dreams of starting a coffee business (Starbucks appears to be a distant memory); she has a son by her estranged partner, the hulking, mangled, literal-minded Haitious, a pugilist just returned from a lucrative but battering overseas stint.
The alluring, diary-keeping, possibly unbalanced Daisy is the latest addition to the Catshack's menagerie of dancers; she gets swept up in a romance with John, the too-sensitive busboy (and derailed medieval lit scholar). Meanwhile Kim finds herself drawn to Strel's cousin, Eloy, a striving artist also known as Kettlehead. His pièce de résistance: 100 teakettles, all blasting the same note.
These characters illuminate different corners of Pope's carefully thought-out world, from media-saturated gladiatorial sports to the dubious pleasures of the flesh offered at the Catshack (about which, more in a bit). But "100%" never feels programmatic. Each relationship comes together or falls apart at its own pace, with its own rhythm and vocabulary. The three distinct stories emerge through the bluster of dialogue (Pope's characters like to gab, and nearly every panel houses words) as well as quieter moments of individual interior monologues. The stories run parallel for the most part, with occasional intersections. In this way, it shares something with the multiple-plot-juggling cinema of the last several years ("Traffic," for instance, or "Babel" or "Crash"), but the scale here is more modest and the result just as potent.
In olden days, the poet tells us, a glimpse of stocking was looked on as something shocking. From that point, as more was revealed, more was required. Pope spells out the inevitable sequence while we watch Daisy gear up for her Catshack debut: "Then a calf, then a thigh . . . a mini-skirt, a bikini, a g-string. . . . " The language gets too raw for a daily newspaper, but you can imagine the progression through increasingly explicit forms of pornography, which have to conjure new visions as each shock wears off.
"Then some charming gentlemen asked himself, 'What's it look like inside a woman?' " Pope's futuristic touches are few but effective, and he gets the most mileage out of the concept of "gastro," in which magnetic-resonance imaging is applied to erotic dance. "What's boiling in her stomach?" run the ads for the Catshack's specialty. "Gastro" involves "3-D projections of a girl's insides for all to see." This is reductio ad absurdum (nothing could be less erotic), or maybe not: It can't just be medical professionals who are watching surgical procedures on YouTube. The secret life of viscera becomes fair game for the voyeur.
Pope muses on this grotesque state of affairs over eight pages, the narration slipping inside and outside of both Daisy's and John's heads:
"Right now it's the shaz, superspace . . . the new menu, the thing. Next week it'll be boring, too. Mere nudity -- where's the thrill? The thrill is in being touched . . . opened up . . . hiding in padlocked hallways in the dark. We want to touch . . . we just can't figure out how to do it. We lost the words for it. Then we forgot the question. And if we can't touch, we'll settle for being exposed. We'll take the girl and her meat in a see-thru box. . . . "
The illustrations -- dynamic motion lines, John working the sink, Daisy's lipstick smeared in a hideous Joker-like smile -- ground the meditation.
The nature of Haitious' ultimate fighting could be made clearer; the appendix suggests it also partakes in "gastro" technology (perhaps allowing viewers to watch bones crunch from the inside, like those queasy injury-reenactment illustrations on the Fox series "House"), but this doesn't seem to be shown in the text. But maybe the scenes of gastro-dancing are enough for one reader to bear.
As a welcome respite from this degraded use for the MRI, Pope lets technology serve the mercurial demands of romance by setting John and Daisy's first date inside a "four-dee booth." As they talk, trying out seduction stories or true confessions, the scenery shifts into unreality: the outside of a space station, a stampede of angry ostrich-like birds. Is Daisy's horrific origin story -- how she got to be the lost soul that she is -- true, or as illusory as the setting that's changing all around them?
Ed Park is the author of the novel "Personal Days" and co-editor of "Read Hard," an anthology of essays from "The Believer." His Astral Weeks column appears monthly at latimes.com/books.