It’s funny. I knew today was the anniversary of Elvis’ death. I didn’t realize it was the 30th anniversary of Elvis’ long black limousine sliding into the beyond. A good hunk of his afterlife has been in comics. Let us take a moment of silence for the man from Tupelo.
In comics, there’s an arc from Elvis dreaming himself as Captain Marvel, Jr. to girls dreaming themselves as Elvis’ love in the romance comics published during his life. There’s a parallel arc from those romance and fan comics to the comics of Dead Elvis—and here I wave at Greil Marcus—titles like Revolutionary Press’ 1993 miniseries, The Elvis Presley Experience, and more recent graphic novels like Rich Koslowski’s 2005 The King! These comics wrestle with Elvis’ death and the meaning of Elvis.
In The Elvis Presley Experience, writers Herb Shapiro and Patrick McCray very earnestly attempt to rehabilitate Elvis in the afterlife but it ends up reminding me of a Jack Chick religious tract without Jesus and with Seventies-style talk therapy. The comic starts with Elvis floating in eternity and then materializing in his heaven-issued therapist’s office to work out residual issues by recounting his life. If you’re curious about heaven I’m happy to report that Farrah Fawcett never went out of style and Jenny has hair just like one of Charlie’s Angels. Also, the dead have fabulous apartments, walk everywhere and are young and beautiful sort of like Logan’s Run without the explosions. And luckily for Elvis they fix physical and “intellectual defects” (issue 1, p. 4). Offering him a cigarette, Jenny tells him, “No one’s in very good shape when they get here, so we take the liberty of giving you… an overhaul. We’ve even boosted your intelligence.” (4).
Yes, The Elvis Presley Experience is one of profoundly patronizing dialog. Meanwhile, Elvis describes his childhood: “My parents were so poor that they had to move into a shanty in East Tupelo—the wrong side of town. They couldn’t even afford segregation.”
I’m not even sure where to start with that, but it’s only scratching the surface of the misguided, fucked up sympathy and not even getting into the unnecessary inaccuracies—that Elvis modeled his look after white country singers frequenting Memphis’ Beale Street, that Col. Tom Parker was a West Virginian and not an illegal Dutch immigrant by the name of Andreas Cornelius Dries van Kuijk. Still, Elvis is there and the comic stems from a startled recognition of Elvis’ power. They’re just trying to fix him.
Though this is not a testament of my faith, I much prefer the unashamed vision of The King!, a comic about faith, not just faith in Elvis, but faith in something. By choosing one of the most ridiculous and ridiculed expressions of faith, Rich Koslowski gets more mileage than any faux sensitive treatment ever could. In another format, I might call The King! a meditation—but with neat generic elements like a down on his luck former National Enquirer reporter desperate to make good on his big chance—an interview for Time Magazine with an apparent Elvis impersonator who claims not just to be the King, but a God.
Koslowski’s King is overweight and white jumpsuited. He’s late stage Vegas Elvis, the most difficult one to embrace. He wears a golden helmet built around the famous sunglasses and he refuses to remove it. The helmet makes identification difficult and increases suspicion. Is the King Elvis? Is he a God? Is he a child who loved Elvis and grew up to be the most powerful Elvis impersonator ever?
While the story follows each character along the path of traditional American religion—glory, temptation, the fall, redemption—it’s not overblown, just a little clunky sometimes. It’s hard to put such discursive ponderings into a visual medium that’s both static and silent. It’s not much easier to write about the power of music in such a medium. And it’s even harder to insert all that material into a fun, genre comic. Koslowski does a great job of not making the book ponderous while remaining as pondersome as you would want it to be. Koslowski’s inking and Adam Wallenta’s colors achieve both a cocktail comics look and the melancholy of Elvis’ lonely bathroom suicide as well as the ridiculous and sublime redemption of the reporter, Paul Erfurt, who rediscovers the beauty in hackery.
Reading The King!, I wonder if the most parodic, overblown and downright unflattering representations are the most sympathetic, even the most respectful and honest. I wonder if somehow it leads to redemption. I’m just not sure if Elvis is redeemed or we are. Still I’m awful fond of Dead Elvis. I can’t wait for his limo to swing by from wherever the hell he’s been keeping himself.
Carol Borden grew up not liking Elvis, now look at her. Here’s the preview to The King! The above illustration is “The Sacred Heart of Elvis” by Christopher Rywalt.
(The essay was originally published at The Cultural Gutter on Aug. 16, 2007)