This is the way the world ends

Southland Tales books I–III
written by Richard Kelly
illustrated by Brett Weldele

These graphic novels are a bit of an oddity. After the belated success of the brilliant but odd Donnie Darko, writer and director Kelly went even more cerebral and complex for his next project, Southland Tales. Parts I–III are in graphic novel format, while parts IV–VI form the film Southland Tales starring The Rock, Seann William Scott, Sarah Michelle Gellar and Justin Timberlake. Confused? Wait ’til you hear the synopsis!

I’m not sure if this was intended to be the project’s format all along (as a marketing ploy) or if Kelly couldn’t fit all of his ideas for this film into a sensible length but didn’t want to just discard some on the editing room floor, instead putting the overflow into these books. To be honest, the latter is how it comes across.

Kelly’s grand idea is an end of days tale, borrowing ideas from the Book of Revelation, as well as science fiction and the politics of paranoia. The story is set in an alternative reality where the US appears to be rumbling toward disaster following a nuclear attack three years ago and the all-pervasive USIdent controls security – from software regulating internet access to the committee deciding who can cross state lines.

World-famous actor Boxer Santaros wakes up alone in the Nevada desert with no memory. He is rescued by a drifter who takes him to porn star/wannabe serious actress/psychic Krysta Now who convinces him that they are in love and were about to make a film she has written prophesying the end of the world: The Power. As Boxer begins to research his role, reality and the screenplay merge together.

Then there’s liquid karma, a mysterious substance mined from deep inside the Earth that can be used to create a wireless electricity field – the answer to the world’s energy problem. But the creators are jealously guarding their secret, and in particular their discovery that liquid karma has some very troubling effects on humans, especially when injected directly into “volunteers”.

Sound like there’s a lot going on? I’ve barely scratched the surface. Which is a problem when these are pretty slim volumes. As it happens, I watched the film Southland Tales before reading the books and I really liked it. Either film is a better medium for such a complex story and large cast or the editing process clarified the film in a manner the books could have done with. They really do look and read like a storyboard and maybe Kelly should have seriously considered making this a mini-series. Maybe he tried but with only one sleeper hit under his belt and a story that touched on a lot of the paranoia of post-911 America it wouldn’t have been easy.

There is a black sense of humour in the dialogue and characterisation that prevents this from being as heavy as it sounds. Krysta acts dumber than she is, with such lines as “Teen horniness is not a crime” but then she recites haiku on stage at the strip club where she works and explains concisely to the manager how the performance is within the terms of her contract. There are also plenty of quotations from the Bible and T S Eliot’s “The hollow men”, if that appeals.

If you liked Donnie Darko and are intrigued by a retelling of the Book of Revelation with a lot of complex ideas thrown in, then I can recommend the film. Sadly I cannot recommend these books.

Published by Graphitti Designs Inc and View Askew Productions 2006