Graphic novel review: Buckhead by Shobo Coker and George Kambadais

We demand a lot from our storytelling.

Not consciously of course (some notable extremes of fandom aside), but somewhere in that liminal space where unexamined thought and emotional need intersect, we crave a story that will enliven our sometimes dreary lives, that will seem inexpressively epic but accessibly intimate, and which delivers up a sense of being something known, and thus comfortable, but also something which challenges us, defying everything we have encountered to date.

That’s a lot of narrative, emotional, and thematic heavy-lifting to be done, a task which may seem beyond the realm of mere mortal storytelling but which Buckhead, by graphic novel writer star-on-the-rise, Shobo Coker and transcendentally good artist George Kambadais, is more than able, possessed as it is by staggering imagination, a culturally rich and diverse outlook, and a humanity that empathetically understands what it is like to be the new person in a strange land and to fear that it will never be your home.

It all comes from a place of real lived experience for Coker.

“BUCKHEAD is a story I’ve wanted to tell since I moved to the US; a story that captures the terrifying wonder and otherworldly newness of being an immigrant kid in a new world. A story of ancient Benin kingdoms, of vengeful Yoruba daemons, of virtual reality, video games, and improbable science. It’s been a blast writing it, and I hope you enjoy reading it,” said Coker. (courtesy BOOM! Studios)

In that excitingly expansive but relatably honest quote is embodied everything that makes Buckhead such an arrestingly good read and which sets it apart as a story that you want to not just read but immerse yourself in; it’s alive and verdant with the terrors of the new but also the hope and possibilities that also reside in that existential place that it often feels so alive, rising from its 2D-home to being larger than life, that thought it is awash in a world that might seem vastly different to your own – unless you routinely encounter strange archaeological digs worthy of blockbuster attention and ancient vengefully enslaving goods of African lore in avowedly ordinary suburban American settings – you feel very much at home in its epically sprawling narrative that might make Spielberg just a little jealous with our good it all is.

(courtesy BOOM! Studios)

Billed as an Afrofuturist series that brings much-needed and highly welcome diversity to graphic novel storytelling, Buckhead is set in the town of the same name, a mysterious locale in Washington state, and not alas for young Nigerian immigrant, Toba, who hoped for New York City or Chicago, or even Washington D.C., which seems determinedly suburbanly banal in its ordinariness but which hides some huge, conspiracy-level secrets, the kind that makes for the sort of palpable intrigue and scary mystery from which grandly beguiling stories are made.

On his first day of high school in a town which his renowned scientist mum is determined will mark a new start for her and her son after the shock recent disappearance of her archaeologist husband in Nigeria, Toba and his new friends, find a Jumanji-weird video game within which dwells “a perfect replica of Ancient Benin and its people” and much, much more.

There is also the ancient tale of titanic battles for the bodies and souls of humanity, with the evilly enslaving side led by a being whose exact nature must be left to the experiential consumption of Buckhead – remember you don’t read this so much as live it – with this malevolent force having found a way to make a beachhead in the town, one which will see the entire population of the planet rendered as mind-controlled zombies incapable of doing anything other than their monstrous overlord’s bidding.

This discovery, which rapidly becomes unnervingly dark and sinister while still retaining a gee-whiz adventurism and an enlivening sense of cheeky humour, sets off one of those stories that enthralls at every turn with imagination so awe-inspiringly vast and thrillingly intense that you turn each other with a desperate need to see what comes next.

(courtesy BOOM! Studios)

A story this rich and big, full of monsters and villains, heroes and sacrifice, and 1950s cinema serial twists and turns leavened by some very serious questions of loss, belonging and identity, needs equally big visual accompaniment and Kambadais is more than up to the task, delivering up imagery that feels like an entire world into which you can disappear.

Hopefully not so much that you never escape again, a fate which Toba and his fantastically capable new friends, who represent the exciting diversity of the modern multicultural United States, are determined to escape not just for them and their parents but for every last person on the planet.

In every gorgeously colourful and 3D-expansive panel on every emotionally alive page, which retain a blockbuster feel while possessing an intimately indie feel, Kambadais takes Coker’s storytelling power and empathy and runs with it, creating a world which is very much our own but far bigger and more possible, both for evil and for good, than the one we occupy.

This is life, hope and adventure supersized and then some, and both Coker and Kambadais, a dream team if ever there was one so well does their writing and art go together, more than match the potential of the premise offering a story that never feels small or uninvolving and which very much delivers on Coker’s wish to tell a story that seemingly has it all.

Buckhead does feel like it has it all, embodying the spirit of Indiana Jones or Lara Croft with an Invasion of the Body Snatchers sense of menace and urgency, all while going deep into what it means to be a kid in a new world whose uncertain of whether he’ll ever feel at home again.

The only complaint is that the ending seems to be wrapped up in a unholy rush, the kind of slightly-unsatisfying rush to the narrative finish line not seen since the second instalments of Star Trek: The Next Generation two-parters, but it’s a small misstep that is more than compensated for by vividly arresting art that embodies place, time and humanity, characters that make you care, and care deeply, and a storyline that more than meets our unspoken expectations and goes bigger and better in every possible way.

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