For more than three decades, Shaky Kane has been almost the very definition of a cult creator — someone who, to those in the know, suggests a particular style of story, of comic, of visual, as well as guaranteeing a level of quality that is, honestly, unavailable anywhere else. Maybe the closest thing to a comparison would be to describe him as the David Lynch of comics: a creator whose aesthetic and demeanor is rooted in comfortable normality and who is, nonetheless, utterly dedicated to the inexplicable and strange; a world just out of reach to most.
Kane is, of course, arguably more purposefully surreal than Lynch could ever dream of, as anyone familiar with the A-Men, Soul Gun Warrior, or The Bulletproof Coffin can attest to.
I actually found in writing this that trying to describe the work of Shaky Kane is a frustrating task, because it’s far more nuanced than initially appears to be the case. Visually, it takes its most obvious cues from the 1970s and ‘80s work of Jack Kirby, but filtered through a pop art lens that amplifies all of the quirks — the abstracted anatomy and bold line work that rejects realism in favor of a graphic existence on the page — to the point of ridiculousness, so that the quirks almost become the entire point of the work.
There’s more going on than simply the exhumation of Kirby, though – Kane also displays an impressive restraint when necessary, bringing a flat-lined verisimilitude to the page while occasionally borrowing from the language of 1950s pop culture and advertising; pulling in elements that suggest he himself has somehow time traveled from the mid-20th century but been damaged in some unknowable way by the journey.
That’s not the case, of course. Kane — real name Michael Coulthard, which is an entirely sensible name but hey, he also he writes under the name “Michael Waspman” which is somehow between the two — is simply a British writer and artist of a certain generation who grew up reading a particular style and look of comics and found ways to twist that influence into new, stranger shapes in his own work.
Much of that strangeness comes from his writing, but even more than his artwork. Although in recent years, Kane seems to have been happy to illustrate other people’s words — see things like That’s Because You’re A Robot with music critic and novelist David Quantick, or the aforementioned The Bulletproof Coffin, his metatextual collaboration with David Hine — it’s in his concepts and his language that Kane perhaps flexes his most unique muscles. On the one hand, you could draw a line directly from the over-authoritarian bombast of, say, Mark Leyner (or, if you want to stick with comics, Brendan McCarthy’s self-directed efforts) to Kane’s writing, but that wouldn’t give the full flavor of what Kane is up to.
There’s an energy that comes from the collision of ideas that shouldn’t work together in Kane’s writing: Neo-noir hyper-violent religious figures speaking in Silver Age comic book dialogue. As he put it in an example from the dazzling Good News Bible: The Complete Deadline Strips of Shaky Kane, “I think it was Nietzsche who once said that if you gaze into the abyss — the abyss gazes back at you! Well — here’s lookin’ at you, true believer!” If his artwork can feel as if it’s close enough to the norm as to be accepted by our brains with just that small, nagging feeling that things aren’t what they’re supposed to be (Why is the pope smoking a cigarette and wearing an inverted Dalek as his Papal tiara?), it’s in his writing more than anywhere else that it’s made clear that things aren’t what we think they should be.
From his earliest appearances in British anthologies such as Escape and Deadline in the 1980s, it was clear that Shaky Kane was dedicated to upending expectations and remixing iconography and cliche into something new, exciting and often creepily alien. Again, it wasn’t work that was ever going to define a generation of readers in the same way that peers like Jamie Hewlett or Philip Bond were creating at the same time; even as he was making a reputation for himself on a monthly basis, with fans eager to see the next appearance of the Atomic Eraser or any number of his exaggerated, snarling narrators, it was clear that Kane was a creator who you either got, or were utterly confounded by the appeal of.
Thankfully, enough fellow creators, editors, and publishers appear to have understood the appeal of his work. In addition to his irregularly published solo work, Kane has shown up in the Judge Dredd Megazine and 2000 AD for years, as well as Image Comics’ long running sci-fi series Elephantmen and a number of standalone series across the past few decades, and especially in the last 10 years or so after a too-long period of seeming quasi-retirement. There’s a particular thrill in finding Shaky Kane where you least expect him, as if he’s managed to infect the mainstream in some minor but nonetheless meaningful way.
Perhaps his return to something resembling prominence — multiple Image Comics projects is nothing to sneeze at, after all — is a sign that Shaky Kane was, like so many cult creators, just a cartoonist ahead of his time with everyone else simply needing to catch up with what he was doing before the time was right for him to return after his late 20th century ascendancy. It’s an attractive idea, not least because it suggests that his popularity will continue to grow as more and more people discover him, leading to what those long term fans have longed for all these years: a world in which Shaky Kane’s particular brand of retro surreality and pop art becomes the baseline of what to expect from anyone determined to find new meaning in the past, uncovering the material to build a better future.